How about "Take Your Child to the Polls" Day?

Letting kids watch you cast your vote can lead to more voters in the future

A Neighborhood Celebration of Democracy Candidates Fair

Thursday, Oct. 17, 7-9 p.m.

Lake Harriet School Upper Campus, 50th Street & Washburn Ave. S.

Candidates from School Board to U.S. Senate invited to participate – over 30 candidates confirmed so far!

I made it to my polling place the night of this year’s primary with 15 minutes to spare, my 10-year-old son, Joe, in tow. I’d had a Cub Scout meeting at my house at 6:30 p.m. and had brought Joe along because it was faster than arranging for him to stay home.

I marched my way through the church knowing that Joe would follow. When I looked up after signing in, I saw that he’d held back, unsure if he should enter the polling room, and was chatting uncomfortably with the door monitor. "You can come with me," I called encouragingly, and waved him over.

Standing with him at the station, I explained the ballot. Joe was interested — largely because he’d attended Southwest Minneapolis’ "Getting to the Bottom of the Ballot" primary candidate fair the night before and had met a few of the candidates. He quickly spotted the name of the Hennepin County Sheriff candidate he’d met. "Vote for him," he requested enthusiastically. "I met him!"

In that moment, I knew we were paving new ground. I’d often taken my kids to the polls to expose them to the process, but they’d never examined the ballot or asked that I cast a specific vote. It was an interesting moment because I’d met this candidate, too, and hadn’t planned on voting for him. At the risk of disappointing Joe, I opted for the more sober learning moment. "When you’re 18, you’ll have your chance," I told him. "I can’t give my vote to somebody else — not even to my own son."

And he respected that.

In simpler times, when communities were smaller, children learned about all kinds of adult responsibilities by tagging along. They learned by watching — how to go to work every day, how to help out the neighbors, how to volunteer at church, how to spend and keep track of money.

Unfortunately, the high-speed, efficiency-oriented lives we lead today don’t allow children to view us in action as easily. If we want to expose our kids to healthy adult role modeling, we’ve got to create the moments. One example of this is the "Take Your Child to Work" program, a day set aside to help us show our jobs to our kids. Why not apply this approach to an even more basic adult responsibility — voting?

Democracy loses its representative quality when citizens fail to speak their opinions about candidates. And as modern voting trends indicate, fewer and fewer citizens are casting their vote. The 15 percent who turned out for the Minneapolis primary are shouldering the weight of civic responsibility, but they are simply too few to hand over a mandate on behalf of the entire community.

That’s where the kids come in. If we can find ways to ingrain in our children the habit of voting, we’ll be creating voters.

This election season, I urge parents to try this story on for size. First, attend with your children the general election candidates fair on Thursday, Oct. 17. Introduce them to candidates; help them ask a question or two. Between Oct. 17 and the election, talk about the candidates you met and visit their web sites.

On Election Day, take your child right into the ballot box. Go when it’s less busy, and talk your way through the ballot, pointing out familiar names and races. If anyone tries to shush you, remind them that they’re interrupting a sacred act — the training of a future voter.

Kathy Shea is a Fulton resident and an organizer with Southwest Civic Engagement, a group designed to increase election participation and information.