Every four years a large group of voters get a chance to cast their first ballot for the U.S. President. These voters were m ost likely in high school the last time a president was elected. After a big turn-out of young voters helped push President Barack Obama to victory in the 2008 election, new voters have become a major focus for this year’s campaigns. So with both sides trying to turn young adults into their next party faithful, how does this next generation of voters decide which candidate is right for them?
Dozens of Graves County High School students are standing in line to run their ballot for president through the pair of voting machines set up in the school’s lobby. They’re assisted by County Clerk Barry Kennemore.
Kennemore says he’s been helping local schools hold elections like this, with real ballots and real machines, for more than a decade. But this exercise in democracy is just that, an exercise. Most of the students aren’t old enough to cast an actual vote. But Kennemore says he thinks it’s important to expose them to the process before it’s time to vote for real.
“While I was here one of the kids came up to me and he said, ‘I remember when you came to our grade school, so I’m going to register to vote because I know how easy it is.’”
But the most important part of voting isn’t being comfortable with the process, it’s being comfortable with the candidates. Presidents lead the country for four years, and the choices they make eventually impact every citizen. You need information about policies, histories, plans… looks.
“One little girl came up to me at one of the schools and she said, ‘I’m gonna vote for the one that I think’s the best looking.’ I don’t know which one that was. She went and voted, though.”
So where do younger constituents get their information about candidates? Sophomore Destinee Hyatte isn’t old enough to vote in this election, but she says she’s still paying attention. Hyatte says she gets a lot of her information from the local news stations, but she doesn’t think they’re always giving her the whole story.
“So I try not to listen to that too much, and just kind of check out stuff for myself and find out my own information. Like, if they something that I think’s not right I’ll go and check that out on several different sources.”
And where can a young person go to make sure they’re finding the right information?
“Well I’m definitely not using Google, or anything like that. I’m using websites where the information comes from, like, the government.”
But the high school’s Young Republicans sponsor Mark Mallory says efforts like that are rare. Mallory says a lot of students oppose candidates based on what they hear the people around them saying. He thinks his role as the club sponsor has given him an opportunity to change that reactive attitude.
“And so my goal is to get students to start voting for something. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do is get them informed so that they know what they want in a candidate.”
Young Democrats sponsor LaVerne Waldrop says she sees that same problem. Waldrop says students show a general lack of interest when it comes to looking at the finer points of candidates’ qualifications. She says she’s started giving her students a kind of “informed voter commission.”
“Here’s your responsibility as you get older, even now. But as you get older you need to not just watch one person on television, one news show. They need to watch and listen and read and study.”
Mallory and Waldrop both say that it’s not as important where the students are getting their information, just that they are using several sources, checking facts, and developing their own opinions. But even with teachers like Mallory and Waldrop, most students still seem to get their opinions and voting cues from the people around them. In fact County Clerk Barry Kennemore says he had to change the mock vote format because of the influence others have on the students.
“They vote the way they hear their parents, their grandparents, and their friends and neighbors talking. So some of the local races… I don’t put local races on there anymore, because… it’s just too close to real, and we don’t want people to know ‘til after the election day how it’s gonna come out.”
But maybe that’s not a failure on the students’ part. Parents raise their children to share their values, and they probably exclude values that conflict with their own. But maybe there’s another value that could be instilled in these future voters that would help them find the best candidate. Student Destinee Hyatte says,
“Be open minded. Listen to everybody’s opinions, even if you don’t like that opinion.”
And the mock election at GCHS? Well, if it’s true that students vote the way their parents do, it looks like Graves County is going Governor Mitt Romney, with 73% of the vote.