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Lesson in democracy: Use it or maybe lose it

The nationwide push to develop a new generation of young voters is exciting, and it is good to see that Pinellas County is part of the trend. Several local programs are doing a great job of not only encouraging young people to register and vote, but also developing in them a deeper appreciation of the right to vote.

As a Times story Saturday reported, tens of thousands of Pinellas students in grades 6-12 are visiting Ruth Eckerd Hall to see the Eckerd Theater Company perform Vote!

The 45-minute drama begins on Election Day when 18-year-old Nicole could vote, but decides she would rather do other things. Historical flashbacks take Nicole on a journey to the Revolutionary War, when Americans fought a bloody battle for independence and the right to self-determination; to the year 1917, as women protested in Washington for the right to vote and were ridiculed and arrested; and to a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, when black Americans still did not have safe passage to the ballot box.

Pinellas students have come away from the production stunned to learn that until fairly recently, at least in historical terms, blacks and women not only did not have the right to vote, they were believed to lack sufficient intelligence to make decisions at the ballot box. Students who have seen enacted before their eyes the struggle of all Americans to win the right to vote have walked away saying they feel a new obligation to vote.

Another program that seeks to emphasize that obligation is "Vote in Honor of a Vet." This program sponsored by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office is aimed at high school students nearing the legal voting age of 18.

Veterans (or family members of deceased or missing veterans) submit their names and a short biography to the supervisor's office. Volunteers and elections office staffers then go into the high schools and meet with students to talk about voting, emphasizing that many of the nation's veterans fought and died to retain America's freedoms. Students who want to register to vote are signed up on the spot and take home a certificate listing a veteran's name and biography. The students are urged to vote at every opportunity to honor the service of "their" veteran.

We might see less voter apathy among today's 30- and 40-somethings if such excellent programs had existed for their generation. Perhaps the enthusiasm being nurtured by these programs for Pinellas students will rub off on their parents.

Voting is a privilege that every American age 18 and up should appreciate and exercise at every opportunity. There is still time to register to vote in the Nov. 2 general election. The deadline is Oct. 4. For information about how to register, go to www.votepinellas.com or call the Supervisor of Elections Office at (727) 464-3551.

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