- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Joe Manchin III, West Virginia's secretary of state, figures that the best way to get voters to turn out at the polls is through their children.

"If your child or grandchild gets in a car with you and says, 'You better buckle up,' you'll break your arm grabbing that seat belt, trying to set a good example. Now a role-reversal would be, 'Mom and dad, do you vote? Will you vote for my sake?' How are you going to refuse?" Mr. Manchin said.

West Virginia has one of the nation's highest percentages of elderly people, usually enthusiastic voters. The state scores high on traditional marks of patriotism, with more veterans per capita than any other state.

But it ranks in the bottom 10 states in voter turnout. Out of a population of about 1.8 million people, 1.4 million are of voting age, but only 1 million are registered to vote.

"I don't have the manpower or the finances to go out and find the 400,000, so how do you find them? You find them through their children. Where are their children? Captive in the school system," said Mr. Manchin, a Democrat who won election in 2000 on a platform of improving turnout and began implementing his plan when he took office in January 2001.

West Virginia SHARES (Saving History and Reaching Every Student) reaches students three times: in late elementary school, when they are visited by local civic leaders or military veterans who talk about citizenship and voting; in eighth grade, when they hold mock schoolwide elections; and in late high school, when the schools register those of voting age.

The mock elections are a huge hit, and Mr. Manchin said he hopes it will be expanded into the high school years so students develop a year-in, year-out association with voting and campaigns.

As for the registration part, Mr. Manchin created a competition to see which schools can register the most students. The top schools are awarded the Jennings Randolph Award, in honor of the state's former U.S. senator, who was a prime force behind the constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18.

But Mr. Manchin also has high hopes for boosting voter turnout now by sending children home from elementary school to encourage their parents to vote.

The biggest concern from school systems was that the program might be too politically charged, but Mr. Manchin said the program avoids Republican-Democrat spats by assigning students at random into Nationalist and Federalist parties and by having students develop their own campaign issues.

The U.S. Senate is in the midst of debating election reform legislation to help states clean up voter rolls and purchase new voting equipment.

Mr. Manchin said as long as states continue to make the final decisions, he supports many of those reforms as a way to make elections run smoother. But really boosting voter turnout, he said, requires making voting a "family tradition."

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