Durham voters will elect their mayor and city councilors Tuesday, but thousands of Durham kids and teenagers will be holding their own election.
Last week at Hillside High School in Durham, civics teacher Nicholas Gruber-Grace set aside a few minutes of third period for his students to review the candidates in Durham’s municipal election.
"You’re looking at the people who are the leaders in your town," Gruber-Grace said as his students reviewed their candidate guides. "These are the individuals in Durham that make key decisions that affect your lives."
Gruber-Grace's students are not 18 years old, so they’re not eligible to vote. But up through Election Day, Gruber-Grace's class and thousands of other Durham students have the chance to cast unofficial ballots for real candidates through a program called Kids Voting. Their votes won’t actually count toward electing officials, but that doesn’t deter Hillside senior Shawn Taraporewalla. He moderated a forum with the candidates last month.
"I think that participating in the earlier discussion with the candidates really gave me a better chance to sort of judge their character personally," he said. "And I think that I’m still in a process of debating between, I guess now and I guess the actual date, which is the third for the election."
Kids have opinions about what they want to see in their communities. Take Hillside sophomore Michael McGirt, whose top concern is crime and safety.
“Every other day I can see people getting shot and different things going on," McGirt said.
Durham saw a string of shootings earlier this year and a spike in overall violent crime.
Hillside senior Keont'a Powell says she wants to see more youth programs.
“Because I’m a youth myself, and I need more activities to do around Durham," she said.
But not everyone takes the unofficial youth vote seriously, and some kids say they didn’t have enough time to go over all the candidates.
Sophomore M’Kalah Hockaday voted on her laptop through the Kids Voting website during her fourth period class. She studied up on her mayoral choice, but she was surprised when she gets to city councilors, that she can choose more than one.
"Do I have to pick three?" Hockaday asked her teacher. "I don’t know these other people."
Hockaday submitted her ballot without choosing a third city councilor. But she isn’t alone in finding herself under-informed when faced with a ballot. It happens to plenty of adults voting in official elections, especially in local races like Durham’s. UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Andrea Benjamin says it's unusual when voters can select multiple representatives for the same office.
"Typically you only vote for one person—only one person is going to win. So that’s sort of what we’re used to," she said.
Benjamin says Kids Voting is a good exercise to prepare kids for the real thing, which can be complicated.
"Probably that student learned a really valuable lesson that once she turns 18 and she registers to vote, I think she’ll probably think back on this and say ‘What are the rules here? What type of election am I voting in? How many people do I need to study up on?’"
A couple studies have suggested Kids Voting may have increased real voter turnout in other parts of the country. In Durham, voter turnout in municipal elections has dropped off in the years since the program started in 2000.
But even if Kids Voting isn’t driving more people to the polls, it is providing youth like McGirt a rare chance to tell candidates what they think.
"I finally get the chance to honestly put my word in," McGirt said. "Even though I know this isn’t getting counted, I get to have a say."