Gilberto Zelaya looked around the auditorium in Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School, taking in the two dozen or so middle and high school students and their parents scattered among the hundreds of empty seats.

“Usually this would be standing room only,” he said.  

Zelaya was at Blair on Tuesday night to run a mandatory training session for the Future Vote Initiative, a program of the Montgomery County Board of Elections that trains middle and high schools students to serve as precinct aides during elections. Since 2006, the program has provided more than 5,000 student aides who have worked in voting precincts all over county.

This election year, Zelaya is looking to fill 1,500 volunteer spots for the April presidential primary election and the November general election. Usually, he has no trouble finding recruits. In fact, 900 usually sign up within the first week after the training sessions are announced.

Not so this year.  

That’s because Maryland’s primary was moved from February – when it was held in 2008 – until April. And the date of the primary, April 3, falls smack in the middle of spring break for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Based on the responses from students, Zelaya thinks he’ll be lucky if he can fill 400 slots for the primary.

And that’s a shame because the program provides students with an opportunity to see democracy in action. As Zelaya points out, kids are allowed to accompany their parents into the voting booth until age 12. After that, they’re prohibited because they are considered old enough to actually influence a parent’s vote.

Students aren’t allowed back into a voting booth until they are 18. “When you’re 12 to 18, you’re in a kind of Election Day limbo,” Zelaya told the small group of students who attended the training session at Blair.

That’s why Zelaya conceived of the Future Vote Initiative, which started as a pilot program in 2004 and was expanded to all county voting precincts in 2006. The program is open to all county students.

Volunteers and a parent or guardian are required to attend an hour-long training session in which Zelaya reviews the rules and duties of precinct aides. Students are assigned to work in a neighborhood district and also must help with precinct set-up on the night before the primary and then work a minimum of a three-hour shift on Election Day. Students who are 17 or older are encouraged to sign up to be election judges.

At the precinct, students will assist voters, helping them figure out where to go and distributing voting-related literature.

They can earn up to six service learning credits per election and maybe more if they work a double shift at the polls. Another five credits will be awarded if a student collects 25 pounds of food prior to training for a food drive. For the 2008 general election, the food drive collected a total of 21,000 pounds.

After the elections, students are encouraged to stay involved by participating in voter registration and volunteering with the Board of Elections—with the opportunity to earn more service learning hours.

It’s not too late to sign up to volunteer during the primary. Zelaya is holding training sessions Jan. 17 at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Jan. 19 at James Hubert Blake in Silver Spring and Jan. 27 at Quince Orchard in Gaithersburg.

Students must register first at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/apps/elections/index.asp, click on “Future Vote Program”

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com