Minneapolis schoolchildren likely won't be able to cast a mock vote at the polls in this fall's city elections.
Kids Voting Minneapolis has raised less than a third of its roughly $50,000 annual budget that allows students to come to the polls with their parents and vote at separate voting booths. That's despite a $2,500 Ameriprise contribution Friday.
The program is a victim of belt-tightening in philanthropic circles.
Barring more money arriving by next Friday's meeting of the board that runs the city program, it's likely to call off the voting portion of the project, which often helps get parents to the polls as well. Classroom programs about voting, democracy and civic participation would continue where teachers elect to use them.
"It's really dismal," said Roberta Worrell, part-time director of the Minneapolis program, describing the fundraising climate. "We're out there talking to people to see if there's anyone willing to write a check, and making some individual appeals."
The job of running parallel elections for student voters is much tougher in Minneapolis than many other places. First, the city is one of the few affiliates of the Kids Voting USA organization that holds off-year elections for city posts. Most places focus only on national and statewide elections, but Minneapolis also let kids vote during the 2005 city elections and planned to do so again this year. It hoped to introduce them to the city's new voting method in which voters rank candidates.
Size and the mode of voting also make organizing student voting in Minneapolis a bigger job. The city has 131 precincts, and that means finding more than 600 people to volunteer to staff student voting, on top of the city election judges who handle adult voting. Having two part-time paid workers to coordinate volunteers and other logistics adds to costs.
Minneapolis also emphasizes voting at actual polling places rather than in schools, because organizers feel that's an essential part of the experience. There's a debate within the Kids Voting movement over which is preferable, but Minneapolis thinks it's important to get students inside an actual polling place.
"Our board kind of on principle wants the voting experience to be as authentic as possible," said Worrell. But there's a trade-off: Some students are from families where the parents don't vote or are noncitizen immigrants unable to do so. That means in-school voting, often online, can increase participation.
That can be seen in last year's numbers. Minneapolis recorded 7,555 student votes in the 2008 election, in which students voted in three federal and the school board races. Meanwhile, 20,000 St. Paul students voted, mostly in school, with most high school and middle school students voting on computers. Those factors allow St. Paul to spend about half of what Minneapolis does, and its students will vote this fall for mayor, school board and possibly a charter referendum.
More than 76,000 students voted through programs in 44 school districts in Minnesota in the 2008 presidential year, according to Lars Sandstrom of Hermantown, who directs Kids Voting Minnesota. But outside St. Paul and possibly Minneapolis, only Shakopee and Prior Lake so far plan student versions of municipal elections this fall.
Money is always an issue for holding student elections, Sandstrom said, especially for odd-year local elections. "We try to tell people that these elections are the most important because these are the elections that affect them the most," he said.
Even raising money for students to vote during the 2010 statewide elections will be challenging, he said. Foundations that provide bedrock funding are stretched because their income fell with the stock market. "Philosophically, they like our program, but when push comes to shove, homelessness beats out civic education," Worrell said.
Kids Voting Minnesota launched a program in Minneapolis in 2004 after four years of effort. It added 10 new communities around the state in 2008 and hopes for 15 more next year. "We could probably be in twice as many communities if we had the money to pay for it," Sandstrom said.
Research touted by Kids Voting USA found students who participate are more likely to vote when they reach 18, and the voting rate of their parents is 3 to 5 percentage points higher.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438