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ZOOMout the Vote: by kids, for the people

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Elections 101

why voting matters | how the process works | resources for learning more

Why voting matters

The government--whether it's in Washington, DC, in your state, or in your hometown--affects your life and by voting, you get to say what's important to you, and you say it straight to the politicians.

It makes us equal.

Each of us (when we're old enough) has one and only one vote. Voting is one of the few times when all grown-ups in the U.S. have an equal say. No matter how much money you have or who your friends are, you only get one vote.

Each vote sends a message.

Even if the person you vote for loses, your vote matters because it lets winners and losers know who supports their points of view.

Politicians notice who is and isn't voting.

In the U.S., the highest voter turnout is among seniors. So it's no surprise that politicians are going to spend a lot of time on issues that are important to older people, like Social Security and Medicare. Younger voters, like 18-24 year-olds, haven't voted in high numbers recently, so it's easier for politicians to pay less attention to the issues that are important to young people.

Whoever wins has the power to impact your life.

The government is in charge of making important decisions that impact almost every aspect of your life, like...

  • Your school such as what gets taught, how many kids are in your class
  • The environment including how clean your air and water will be, how we'll deal with global warming problems
  • Your health including whether or not you and your family can get health insurance, how much it costs to go to the doctor or to buy prescription drugs
  • Who gets to visit, work and live in our country. If some members of your family live in another country and would like to move here, the federal government controls whether or not they can.
  • Your safety including how big your police and fire departments are
  • How much money we spend on the military and whether we go to war

What happens now has a great effect on the future.

If you think that your opinion doesn't matter about who's president now, think again! The people in office now are making decisions that will affect your life now AND later! This is why it's important to get involved and be heard now, even when you can't vote.

How it Works

On Tuesday, November 4th, millions of adults will go to their local voting booths to vote for the next president and vice president of the United States. All of the votes will be recorded and counted, and the winner will be... named? Uh, not so fast. It's a lot more complicated than that!

Registration: Sign Up!

Before you can vote, you have to register as a voter in your state. It's easy to do because almost every state in the U.S. accepts the same, simple National Registration form.

Registration helps your local polling office keep track of who can and did vote. So, when you go to your local polls on Election Day, there will be people there with a list of all of the registered voters in your area, and they'll cross your name off of their list. This also helps them to make sure no one votes more than once or tries to vote under someone else's name.

The Parties: Sizing up the Competition

In the U.S., most of our elected officials are from two large parties, Democrats or Republicans, but other people want to be president, too. These other candidates come from what are called 'Third Parties' like the Green Party, Independence Party, Constitution Party, Socialist Party, Libertarian Party, Reform Party, and Natural Law Party.

The Primaries and Caucuses: Narrowing Down the Pack

Usually more than one member of a party wants to become president, and each has his or her own vision for the country. But, only one candidate from each party can run in the final election. That's where primaries and caucuses come in. If a President finishing his first term is running for re-election, usually no one in his party will run against him and he will become his party's nominee.

Between late January and early June during the year of the general election, a few states hold caucuses, but most states choose their candidate using primary elections.

Caucuses are small groups of people getting together to decide whom they want to support as their party's candidate. Primaries are elections where everyone in the party who is interested votes for the party candidate. In these primaries and caucuses, delegates are chosen to represent candidates at the national conventions in the summer.

Each state gets a certain number of delegates depending on how many people live there. The delegates go to the convention and whichever candidate gets more than 50% of the delegates becomes the party nominee.

The Conventions: Party-Time, Politicians Style

After the primaries and caucuses, the major parties hold conventions to officially nominate the candidate who won the most delegates, If only the President ran for the party's nomination, they renominate the President.

The President will usually announce his choice for Vice President during or slightly before the convention as well. These conventions are kind of like big parties or pep-rallies with politicians speaking to loud, cheering crowds who hold up campaign signs and toss around balloons and confetti.

After the candidates are nominated, their names are officially submitted to each State's chief election official so that they will appear on the general election ballot. Other parties will also hold conventions and nominate their candidate based on the rules of the party.

The General Election and the Electoral College: Being Popular Isn't Enough

Now, that each party has a potential President and Vice President (often called the party's "ticket") the general election process begins. Candidates spend weeks campaigning throughout the country in an attempt to win the support of voters. Even though a voter may belong to a particular party, he or she may vote for candidates from any party.

Usually the major parties candidates will hold public debates on national television where reporters question them on the major issues.

Finally on November 4th, the people vote for one, and only one, ticket. People who are traveling on Election Day can vote in their home state by filing absentee ballots. Procedures for getting absentee ballots and deadlines for submitting them vary by state.

But... and this is a BIG 'but'... when a person casts a vote in the general election, they're not really voting directly for an individual ticket. They're voting for something called Electors, and whichever ticket gets the most votes in a state then gets that state's electors who are in turn supposed to vote for the ticket.

These electors are part of something called the Electoral College. Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its Senators (always 2) plus the number of its Representatives (determined by the state's population), for a total college of 538 electors. The first candidate to win more than half the electoral votes (at least 270) becomes President!

And the Winner Is... : The Next President of the United States

Usually, the winner is announced very late on election night after most state's polls have closed and votes tallied.

Even though we now know our President-elect and Vice President-elect (the duo who will be sitting in the White House in January) there are still some formalities to take care of to make everything official.

In December, the Electors cast their votes and the results are announced in early January. In late January, The President-elect and Vice President-elect take the oath of office and begin their work as leaders of the U.S.

Learn More!

Want to learn even more? Check out some of these Elections related Web sites, guides and books!


Presidential Candidate Sites:

- Bob Barr
- John McCain
- Ralph Nader
- Barack Obama
Visit the presidential candidates' Web sites to learn where they stand on the issues, how they are reacting to the other candidates' claims, and how to volunteer for their campaigns.

The PBS Kids Democracy Project
Visit an interactive town to learn how the government plays a role in your daily life. Step inside the voting booth and cast your vote about a campaign issue. Read a job description about the presidency and become President for the day!

Ben's Guide to U.S. Government
Learn about government branches, citizenship, and how laws are made through informative articles and games.

Kids Voting USA
Check out the Kids Voting USA program for an online "Constitution Test" and a printable guide of election activities for you and your family.

Project Vote Smart
Find information about your local, state, and federal elections with candidate profiles and explanations of voting processes including Electoral College and primary elections.

Brain Pop
View a cool movie about the elections, or take their spiffy elections quiz.

Take Your Kids to Vote
Get your whole family involved in the election process. Ideas include playing "Debate Bingo" and escorting your parents to the polls.

NewsHour Extra
What is important about this year's presidential election? NewsHour Extra offers news from the campaign trail, issue backgrounders, candidate profiles, lesson plans and teen perspectives so you can make up your own mind.


ZOOMout the Vote Guide

Learn why it's important to vote with our ZOOMout the Vote Guide (PDF: 1.2MB, 16 pages, adobe acrobat required); then find ideas for getting the grown-ups in your life to register and vote. Includes easy directions for organizing a voter registration drive.

Capital Mysteries #10: The Election-Day Disaster

Roy, Ron. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2008.
The Presidential Election is less than a week away, but KC and Marshall have more important things on their minds—their Halloween party at the White House! The morning after the costume party, they discover that someone has posted damaging photos of the president on the Internet! Will they ruin President Thornton's chances for a second term or can they rescue the election?

See How They Run

Goodman, Susan. Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, 2008.
Using witty anecdotes and clear explanations, this book takes readers from the birth of democracy to the Electoral College, from front porch campaigning to hanging chads.


Steele, Philip. DK Children, 2008.
This book in the Eyewitness Books series gives a comprehensive overview of the voting process in government - how it has changed through history, and how it differs in republics around the world.

If I Were President

Stier, Catherine. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 1999.
Spend the day as President of the United States, but beware! As fun as it all may look and sound, the President is responsible for making many complicated decisions. But that's no reason why you can't dream of becoming the President... someday!

Voting and Elections

Murphy, Patricia J. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2002.
Learn key terms that are used often during presidential elections like candidate and political party.

Duck for President

Cronin, Doreen. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2004.
When Farmer Brown makes some unpopular decisions, Duck calls for an election and runs for office—first for farm leader, then governor, and finally president—only to find out that being in charge is harder than it looks.

America Votes: How Our President Is Elected

Granfield, Linda. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press Ltd., 2003.
In quick, fun-to-read chapters, you can read and learn everything there is to know about elections—from the history of the political button to the problem with certain types of ballots. Fun facts are sprinkled throughout.

Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts (2nd edition)

Sobel, Syl. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 2001.
Presidential elections have rules all their own. This book explains the Electoral College and answers the question, "What if something happens to the President?" Lots of interesting presidential election rules, trivia, and facts are included.


Christelow, Eileen. New York: Clarion Books, 2003.
Two pet dog volunteers watch (and participate) as two candidates for mayor attend rallies, voters weigh the candidates and the issues, and candidates raise money for their campaigns. Along the way, they learn why voting is important, the history of voting rights, and about the election process.

Class President

Hurwitz, Johanna. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1990.
Fifth graders need to select their class president, and things don't turn out as they expect. The best leader is not the most popular classmate or the classmate who is most eager to win the election.

Robert Takes a Stand

Seuling, Barbara. Chicago: Cricket Books, 2004.
Committed to the cause of saving endangered animals, Robert learns that taking a stand can be difficult. Meanwhile, he agrees to help his friend, Paul, run for class president. Although they have some misunderstandings about the campaign process, they learn the ropes quickly enough. You will, too!


Think About It!