Students Exert Active Citizenship in a Historic Election Year

More than 20 Upper School students put participatory democracy into action this election season when they served as election judges in both the primary and runoff elections, which ended with historic results: Chicago’s first black female mayor and first openly gay mayor in Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot.
Upper School history teacher Andy Bigelow is one of the 450 teachers nationwide who traditionally shares this opportunity via the Mikva Challenge with students early in the first semester to connect the school’s mission to local action. With each year generating more interest than before, Bigelow was very proud of the sheer number of students who signed up this year, contributing 23 more student election judges to a growing army of more than 2,000 nationwide. After signing up, students received four hours of training to prepare them for their varied roles on Election Day.
Thinking upon her experience at the polls this week, junior Natalie Daskal shared, “Election judging has been an experience unlike any other. I have now done it three times, and each time has challenged me in its own way and opened my eyes to members of my community I didn’t know before. I have certainly learned how to deal with very challenging people, how to occupy my time when I have been sitting in one chair for 14 hours and how to stay calm when those around me are not. I now see the election process very differently; I see how insecure our system is and how much work it takes to hold an election. What I have enjoyed most about election judging is meeting people in my neighborhood. I have met so many different people all because of our democracy and that is super-cool.”
When asked about his time as an election judge, junior Eric Warshaw offered, “I have had a great experience as a student election judge and learned a lot about the democratic process in doing so. Since I can’t vote yet, election judging allows me to contribute to the democratic process. When I was informed of the opportunity, I knew almost nothing about the process of voting and now know how the ballot gets from the voter to election central. My fellow election judges were very nice and helped me get with the process. Recently, voting has become much more digital, making it difficult for older election judges to run polling places. I was very helpful to my fellow election judges with overcoming tech hurdles. Interacting with the voters was very fun. Many voters were excited to vote and were interested in how the day was going. Next time, all that I want to change is the turnout! In the February election only 33.5 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Hopefully in April, we will have a high turnout so the people of Chicago can get the mayor they want.”
Senior Molly Taylor ’19 said, “This year, I have had two wonderful experiences serving as an election judge: in November for the national election and, more recently, for the municipal round on February 26. Both days began at 5 a.m. when I arrived at my polling place—a smoky, dimly lit American Legion meeting room—to set up the voting booths and registration tables. Though I’d previously attended a training session, I spent the entire day of the national election learning, hands-on, about voting procedures, the equipment and, generally, how to keep a packed polling place functioning smoothly. My primary responsibility was to verify voters before handing them the ballot, which meant checking that a voter’s signature on their application matched the one on record. The February election day was much easier because I was familiar with the way things worked. In addition, I had a lot of downtime—while I wanted to appreciate the time I had to catch up on assignments, it was an unsettling indication of the low voter turnout compared to that of the national election. An election judge I was working with expressed her exasperation over the turnout, noting that since the municipal officials affect us at home, voters should consider the elections as important as the national ones, if not more so. From my two fellow election judges, I became aware of the great commitment and time necessary to hold an election. I thought one day of the job was exhausting, but they also managed early voting for the 16 days leading up to the February election day. Though the 14-hour days were long, as I helped disassemble the voting booths at the end, I couldn’t help but feel a rewarding sense of satisfaction. As a 16-year-old who knew practically nothing about voting a few months earlier, the fact that I helped adults practice their civic duty excited me. The experience instilled in me the importance of voting, and I look forward to casting my ballot in the next year—in the meantime, I can’t wait to serve as an election judge for the April 2 runoff.”
Junior Micah Derringer commented, “My primary job throughout the day was to check in every voter and make sure that they got the correct ballot. It was super-interesting to see all the different types of people who lived in my precinct. Also, it was pretty interesting how few people showed up to vote. In my precinct, we had well under a 20 percent turnout.”
Senior Samuel Kagan jotted down thoughts in real time: “My Election Day has been more of a cultural experience than I was expecting. There seem to be a whole lot of native Polish and Spanish speakers in my precinct, but none of the judges speak Polish or Spanish. Google Translate and broad hand gestures have become my new best friend. We’re almost out of Demonstration Ballots. There’s an older Polish man who has stopped by to vote on three separate occasions––he doesn’t speak enough English for us to tell him what’s going on and his hearing and eyesight are too weak for Google. It’s been quite the day.”
Reflecting upon this annual opportunity, and this Chicago election cycle in particular, Bigelow said, “I am so proud of these kids, especially the ones who committed to three full days this year! This is a tiring and worthwhile experience. After four hours of training and many hours of judging, they have jumped right into our participatory democracy. This supports our mission in creating civic-minded and active citizens.”
The Chicago Board of Elections and Mikva Challenge provide one of the most robust student judge programs in the country. Through the Mikva Challenge, more than 9,000 young people from 117 schools have learned about the voting process and had the opportunity to serve as election judges at polling places across the country on Election Day.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.