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Students Too Young To Vote Engage In Election

Kealey Bultena
Tea Area Schools government teacher Ryan Decker plans a mock election, including stickers.

Some people are ready for this election to be over. They’re tired of hearing about candidates and ballot measures. They want the political ads to cease, they want campaign signs torn down, and they want the whole thing to go away. But a few local high school students say voters shouldn’t rush the process - and they aren't even old enough to vote. 

She can count the number of days until the 2016 election on one hand, and Kaitlyn Friedrich recoils at the idea that some voters are disinterested in politics.

"If you think it’s boring, then I don’t think you’re looking at this stuff right, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s not boring at all," Friedrich says. "Like there’s one amendment this year where it would change how we do elections. It would take away the primaries for both parties and just combine it into one big primary, and that can be good, but it also can be bad. And it would change a lot of things about how we vote, too. I think it’s pretty interesting."

Friedrich is a junior at Tea Area Schools. She says the more complicated, local issues that show up on the ballot deserve the most attention.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Senior Lauren Dan and junior Kaitlyn Friedrich

"You’ve got to somehow relate it to what you’re doing in your own life, because these things do affect you," Friedrich says. "Even if they might not affect you directly, maybe they affect your neighbor."

Friedrich’s classmate Brandon Crozat says he doesn’t see those relevant issues hit the airwaves. Instead, the high school junior says he’s bombarded by talk emanating from the top of the ticket.

"Well, I hear about Trump and Hillary, like, ‘Oh, god. Trump’s gonna build a wall’ all the time, but I don’t think the nitty gritty things get, like the actual stuff that really matters – because there’s a lot of things portrayed in the media, just seeing like CNN, where Trump will say something or Hillary will say something, and we’ll have a problem there," Crozat says. "And people will just really base their opinions on that when they’re not really reading the books, seeing what’s going on."

Crozat says information is power. Tea Area senior Lauren Dan says that includes truth – and spin and deception and rumor.

"I think with the influences of social media, a lot of kids are getting very mislead because they’re seeing a lot of biased news feeds, a lot of biased journalism companies – whether it be liberal or conservative. I really wish that kids would do more unbiased research. That way they could see the facts of each candidate or of each thing that’s getting passed," Dan says.

Government students at Tea Area are working against election ignorance. They've created a list of pros and cons for different measures on the ballot.

Teacher Ryan Decker splays posters on a kind of gray, kind of beige wall in the main hallway. Some are color-printed. Others are hand-written. Each tackles breaking down a political race or issue in front of South Dakota voters into bullet points. The posters are voter crib sheets. Crozat says they may contain more information than filters to adult voters.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Posters about ballot measures in Tea

"With these little posters, it shows probably more than the normal person will get, because they’ll see advertisements on TV, and they’ll probably just kind of think, ‘Oh, it’s just an advertisement on TV. I’m not going to really pay attention to it.’ But we have posters in the hallways, and I think posters draw more attention, personally, because, I mean, a new poster in the hallway usually means something’s going on," Crozat says.

An election is certainly something going on. Dan says Tuesday’s vote will change the daily lives of South Dakotans – even those who don’t  get a ballot.

"One example is, right now, they’re trying to pass a law that lowers minimum wage for minors. Unfortunately, since minors aren’t allowed to vote in an election, that kind of sucks because we don’t get an opinion on it, you know? And if we’re going to have our prices lowered when we’re doing the same work as someone else, it doesn’t seem very fair that we don’t even get an opinion," Dan says. "So sometimes it’s really important just to stay informed with what’s happening, because – regardless of whether or not you can vote – those things will affect you."

"Referred Law 20 was a great gift to me because I can gift it in the sense that, ‘They want to pay you less.’ You know, and to say, ‘Okay, this is something we’re voting on. This actually has a direct impact on your life," Ryan Decker says. 

Decker teaches government classes at Tea Area Schools. He acknowledges that it’s more difficult to engage in politics when you can’t vote. That’s why he’s making sure Tea Area teens can with a mock election on Tuesday.

"They come up. We’re going to ask them to show their ID – gotta show ID at the polling place. We’re going to try to instill that. We’re going to mark them off just like the poll books, hand them a ballot. They’re going to vote," Decker says. "I’m excited. I remembered to buy stickers this year. They’re going to get an ‘I voted’ sticker, which I’m hoping will motivate them, and we’re going to try to make it kind of like the process."

Decker says students can cast their votes in statewide races and ballot measures. Plus student government is providing a measure that is Tea-specific, so students can see a tangible result to their participation at the polls. Senior Lauren Dan says the exercise mixes entertainment with education.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Teacher Ryan Decker takes masking tape to posters so students see the ballot breakdowns in the hall.

"I’m not 18," Dan says. "I’ve never even seen a ballot, so being able to see a ballot – how it’s laid out, what the South Dakota ballot looks like – was really interesting for me, because it gave me an idea. And then we learned about ballot fatigue."

Ballot fatigue: the concept that people pay the most attention to the simple votes at the top of the ballot and lose interest as the pages roll out. Government students are using this knowledge combined with their studies in the functions of government to put the election into context. Crozat says people can use history to inform their decisions now.

"Because, if we look back then what they really meant for the Constitution today, then we can take that and we can understand, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do and this is what they meant for this government to do.’ But we could also change that, because things are constantly changing," Crozat says.

Crozat says knowing the foundation for the status quo helps him envision the United States of America he wants.

Decker says he votes but won’t tell his students which bubbles he fills in. He says his work isn’t about teaching high schoolers what he thinks; Decker says it’s about teaching them to think.

"I want them to come away from this class having formulated their own particular philosophy of what they believe government should and should not be doing. Because, if they have this sense of understanding of what government should play in their life, then hopefully they’re going to invest in making sure that government is doing those things," Decker says. "If you kind of come away from the class like, ‘Government is just about politicians arguing,’ there’s not a lot of exciting stuff there, and that’s what turns people off. People see the election, they see all of the bickering, and that’s what they’re tired of. So if we recognize that government is this process we’ve created to make decisions about how we interact with other people and that govern our day to day interactions and lives, then you can start to see that this has more significance to me."

Decker says that lesson extends beyond his classroom walls when students across the school vote on Tuesday, and they’ll have the stickers to prove it.