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Bring An Adult To Vote: How kids are helping turn around low voter turnout

In low income areas of New Zealand, where there is very low voter turnout, children and highly engaged principals are making a big difference. Kirsten Warner shares the Bring An Adult to Vote initiative.

At Holy Family School in Porirua, the $40 cost of the school three-photo pack was beyond the reach of many families. So principal Chris Theobald and staff last week took the photos themselves. Day one was class and individual photos, day two families, families as big as 13 – Theobald says he drew the line at bringing the family dog.

Holy Family School staff taking photos

Chris and the staff managed to turn the photos around, paying two staff to process them over the weekend, at $6 for a three-pack. Families in the decile one school – 76% Pasifika, 18% Maori, 6% Burmese – don’t have a lot of money. “We are responding to a need, like we are with voting,” says Theobald. “More of our families need to vote.”

He’s referring to a new programme called Bring An Adult To Vote, which Holy Family has enthusiastically taken on board. It’s an idea which seems so self-evident – that the earlier children get involved with voting the more likely they are to grow up to be a voter. And that getting children involved in voting also brings in their families.

New Zealand has a serious problem with voter participation. With potentially close to a million people not voting there’s a big push by the Electoral Commission to get them to the polls, especially in the 18 to 39 age groups – the ages of primary school children’s parents and older siblings.

The Electoral Commission says turnout has been in decline in most developed democracies over the last 30 years, but New Zealand’s decline has been particularly steep and persistent.

The 2014 participation rate, 72.14%, was the second lowest since the adoption of universal suffrage in 1893. The lowest was in 2011, at 69.57%.

Low participation is not just confined to the young, but is spreading up through all age ranges. The last three general elections have seen enrolment rates fall in all age groups between from 18 to 39. It seems that enrolment and voting is a habit which needs to be formed young. If it isn’t, non-engagement tends to persist.

Twenty schools across the country like Holy Family School, identified as having communities with low voter turnout, are taking part in Bring An Adult To Vote. It’s inspired by Merivale Primary School in Tauranga, where in 2014 a school-wide voting project saw 100% of parents and whānau vote after most hadn’t in the previous election.

How did they achieve it? Most of the school’s families hadn’t voted for generations. Merivale staff wondered if getting kids excited about democracy and the importance of voting might have an effect on the community.

It did.

Holy Family School kids

Children took enrolment forms home and told older siblings, parents and grandparents they needed to vote. The kids showed them how to fill in the forms, brought the forms back and the school posted them to the Electoral Commission.

The school let families know that respected staff and community members would be at the school polling station to help them (new voters were often embarrassed that they didn’t understand the forms or know what to do) and that there would be transport to get there.

The children had an investment in bringing their nanas and poppas and older siblings to vote. Their adults were proud of them and they were proud of their adults.

The lesson from Merivale School was this: encourage your students and they will do the rest. This Saturday, Merivale’s van will be out picking up voters again.

From Merivale’s success the primary school teacher’s union NZEI Te Riu Roa has developed a teaching resource, used along with teaching units from the Electoral Commission, to inspire kids to encourage their parents to vote. Kids discuss leadership, respect, and making a difference.

Those 20 schools taking part are doing some very cool things. All day Saturday in Porirua, ‘Big Rexy’ the school van will be travelling a regular route around Ascot Park area, driven by the school principal and caretaker, as one way of encouraging parents to use Rangikura School’s polling booth. A sausage sizzle will be on to welcome those coming to school to vote.

Holy Family School (roll 215) has sent home 75 enrolment packs, made videos, and requested an early polling booth at school on Thursday. Holy Family also got involved in setting up an online campaign to get young Pasifika voting. #GummonMateVote has some very cool, heart-warming and funny videos filmed on the principal and deputy-principal’s iPhones.

Schools are frequently using social media to remind families to vote. At parent-teacher and curriculum evenings, older students (eight to 11 years olds) have set up stalls with electoral rolls and children are encouraged to bring their families over to check their names. This week children will be voting in the own elections via the Electoral Commission’s Kids Vote.

On election day there will be fund-raisers and sausage sizzles (away from the booths) and “I Voted” stickers.

But this final week before the election, it’s about getting the kids to encourage the adults in their lives. As Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel of Flanshaw Road School in Auckland’s Te Atatu South says, it’s about “Are your adults voting?” and “Are you bringing someone?” and “Who do you know who’s over 18 and are they enrolled?”

Te Atatu electorate and schools like Flanshaw Road were identified not just by low voter turnout (Te Atatu South has whole streets of rental houses, and renters are less likely to vote than homeowners) but also, Taylor-Patel points out, by principals interested in community-led change.

Bring An Adult To Vote is carefully non-political, so when local candidates and MPs are invited to a participating school they talk about the process of elections and why it’s important to vote. Older children are able to identify the main parties and compare policies on issues such as housing, jobs, environment and, of course, education.

Primary and early childhood teachers and principals have been campaigning hard for the past year for better education funding.

Holy Family School

NZEI Te Riu Roa is asking New Zealanders to vote for children by voting for education when they choose which party to support on Saturday. “Vote for Me, Vote for Education is about reminding New Zealanders what’s at stake when decisions are made about public education – and that’s the hopes, dreams and future of our children,” NZEI President Lynda Stuart said.

“Too often, children’s voices are missing when adults make the big decisions that will affect their future.  Children don’t get a vote, so we’re encouraging adults to think about what’s needed so every child gets the best education, and all our children can achieve their potential.”

Kirsten Warner is an Auckland journalist, writer and musician, this week working for the NZEI Te Riu Roa, the primary school teacher’s union.

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