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Brittany N. Marshall/MEDILL

In training sessions students learn about voting through examples and hands-on activities.

High school students invade polling places, not as voters but as judges

by Brittany N. Marshall
Feb 07, 2012

On March 20, more than 1,400 students will be manning the polls for the Illinois primary.

Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday a new group of students gathers to learn the ins and outs of voting by the Mikva Challenge and the Chicago Board of Elections. These training sessions started two weeks ago, with two more weeks left in the program before the primary.

In the four-hour training sessions the junior and senior high school students are taught how to set up voting booths, answer voter’s questions, handle absentee ballots and calculate election results.

The student volunteers are from the Mikva Challenge’s student judge project. This program is the largest of its kind in country and gives students with a 3.0 GPA or higher, a chance to experience elections first-hand.

Allie McRaith, 17, second-time judge, said she wants to breakdown the misconceptions that people have about those her age.

“We are trying to break the stereotypes that students don’t care about the politics around them,” said McRaith.

Founded in 1997, the nonpartisan Mikva Challenge has helped students to be involved with elections, policymaking and activism. Since 2000, it has reached more than 20,000 students in the Chicago area.

Illinois, Cook County and Chicago election rules require that judges be at least 18 and eligible to vote, but officials make an exception for high school students trained in the Mikva Challenge program.

“Some students that participate are unable to vote, but I think they are most excited by the idea that one day they will vote and they will already be knowledgeable about the issues,” said Kyle Boudreau, an Elections in Action program coordinator.

“I found out about this program through my school and I think it is major for students,” said student judge Ciara Keen, 18. “This program pushed me to register to vote.”

Cristina Perez, another Elections in Action program director, started this past Friday’s session with an exercise to show the importance of the students’ participation.
She told the students to stand up and then shouted characteristics such as: “Sit down if you are a woman. Sit down if you are African-American. Sit down if your parents do not own their homes.”

At the end of the exercise most of the room was seated. Cristina told them that at one point in history all those seated could not vote.

“This opportunity is a privilege. Your vote is your voice. Your voice is you vote,” she said.

If accepted into the program, students will be paid for their work. They earn $50 for the training and $120 for serving as an election judge. Valencia Pringle, 17, first-time student judge said it is not all about the money.

“I feel like it empowers me that I am making a difference and that I am an important aspect of my community.”

“With our participation, the precincts are usually full of volunteers on election day,” said Boudreau. “The city never has to recruit more judges in the end.”

Leaders make sure that students understand they are not inferior to the adults working the polls, but they are equals working towards the same goal: to get people in their community to exercise their right to vote.

“We are not there to get coffee and doughnuts, we are there to work and get people to vote,” McRaith said.