Today, I accompanied a group of 28 fourth-grade students on a tour of my local election headquarters. I’ve taken this tour at least four times, but never with anyone—adults or teens—who asked more creative or challenging questions.
I’ll list some of them below. Some may strike you as amusing, in a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” way. That’s not why I’m sharing them. I’m not here to demean or condescend to these kids, or to draw a laugh at their expense. I’m awed by them–and not in an “Aww, aren’t they cute way.” They earned my respect and admiration for their confidence and their creative thinking.
Observing them, I could see that they haven’t yet learned much about how elections work. (I’m sure that’s about to change, as their fourth grade theme is “Citizens Making A Difference.”) But the questions they asked reflected a level of curiosity and engagement that was very impressive. The first question was, “How do you register to vote?” I think the sophistication of that question impressed the staff, and they knew, instantly, that this was a group of really smart and well-prepared kids.
These young people will be eligible to vote in eight years. If they manage to stay civically engaged until then–and beyond–and if schools, religion, mass media and the entertainment world don’t kill their souls and brains before then, we’ll have a new generation of voters who just might save us all.
Here are some of their questions and the responses (paraphrased) they received from the election staff. (I learned a few things, myself.) Kudos to the staff for taking every question seriously and not talking down to the students.
Q: Do people have to vote?
A: No. But there are some countries where you’re required to vote, and if you don’t, you pay a fine. That’s how it is in Australia and Brazil, and maybe some other places, too. Some people in those countries go to the polls and sign in, but then just leave their ballots blank.
Q: Which part of government are you? [Last week, these same students visited the state capitol, so government branches may have been on this student’s mind.}
A: Great question! We’re not part of the judiciary branch, because we’re not judges. We’re not part of the legislature, because we don’t make the laws. And we’re not part of the executive branch, either. Elections are sort of a branch of their own. It’s kind of odd.
Q: So, if you guys are in charge of running the elections, are you allowed to vote?
A: Yes. But we have to vote absentee, because on Election Day, we have to be here in the office from 4 a.m. until we finish counting and reporting the votes—that can be after midnight.
Q: If you think you’re a Republican, can you still vote for a Democrat?
A: Yes. Anybody can vote for anybody.
Q: Can the President vote for himself? Does the President’s vote count more than anyone else’s?
A: The President can definitely vote for himself, or herself. I’d be surprised if candidates didn’t vote for themselves. The President gets one vote, just like everyone else: One person, one vote.
Q: Can you vote if you’re on house arrest? Can you vote if you’re in jail?
A: In Missouri, if you’ve been convicted of a crime and you’re in prison, you can’t vote. If you haven’t been convicted yet, and you’re in jail waiting for your trial, you can vote. If you’re on house arrest, that means you can’t leave home. But in that case, you can vote absentee.
Q: Do celebrities get special votes?
A: No. But in some states, if people don’t want to be seen in public, they can vote absentee, too. In Missouri, you have to have a better reason than that if you want to vote absentee. And you can’t vote early in Missouri, either.
Q: Is there a dress code for voting?
A: No. Well, actually, you have to be wearing something. We won’t let you in if you don’t have any clothes on. It’s okay to vote wearing flip flops, workout clothes, a business suit, or even a bathing suit. We’ve even had people come to vote wearing Halloween costumes.
Q: Can you go to jail if you cheat at voting? How do you make sure no one steals the votes or changes stuff around?
A: We have a lot of security. Everything is locked up. We have security cameras everywhere. We have a lot of checks and balances. Every time someone touches a ballot, there has to be a Republican and a Democrat to okay it. None of our counting machines or voting equipment is connected to the internet. And yes, you can go to jail if you cheat at voting.
[As a bonus, the election staff set up a mock election for the students, where they used the county’s new paper ballot-on-demand system and digital scanners to cast their votes for fictitious and/or historical candidates. One staffer told me that the the students did a much better job of filling out the ballots than many adults. Voting was clearly the highlight of the tour. It prompted questions, too.]
Q: Where should I sign my ballot?
A: Nowhere. You might have to sign a test paper at school, but in voting, we have a secret ballot. No one gets to see how you voted, and we don’t keep track of who each person voted for.
Q: […As she placed her paper ballot into the scanner…] Is that a shredder? Does it just eat the ballot?
A: It’s definitely not a shredder. It’s a ballot box. When you feed your ballot into the scanner, it records your vote and then drops the paper into the ballot box. We collect all the paper ballots, and we count them by hand, if we need to.
Q: Do you get paid to do this?
A: Yes. [Author’s note: But not enough for the level of democratic responsibility they take on, or for the long hours they work, especially during Presidential election years, but in “off-years” as well. We got a free tour today. It was worth a lot.]