Brittney Davis, 14, was looking forward to seeing the new voting machines when she headed to Kettering Baptist Church on Election Day with her mother, Jennifer.
A ninth-grader who is taking a government class, Brittney was eager to check out the computerized ballots that everybody was talking about. But as she and her mother approached the sign-in table Nov. 5, an election official stopped them in their tracks.
"He said I wouldn't be able to go in if I was older then 10," Brittney said.
Around the state, students eager to witness voting up close and the parents who want to expose them to the democratic process firsthand have been thwarted by a Maryland election law that prohibits children over 10 from accompanying their parents into the voting booth. Although some states have laws limiting children's access to voting machines, most prohibit teenagers. Only a handful of states bar young children, authorities said.
Virginia election laws allow children 15 and under. New York allows children 16 and under to accompany their parent or guardian to vote. The District of Columbia, California, Texas, Indiana, Vermont and Georgia, which recently changed its law to increase the age from 12 to 18, allow all minor children.
Texas bumped the age up from 12 to 18 in the early 1990s, officials said.
"I think [the change] was intended to introduce children to the voting process," said Ann McGeehan, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state. "They are seeing their parents vote, so children get acquainted with the voting process. There was also concern that parents should be able to vote without getting a baby sitter to stay home with their children."
In Maryland, officials approved the law, according to Maryland election board officials, because of concerns that children might influence parents or interfere with them as they cast their votes, slowing down the balloting.
Maryland State Board of Elections officials said they get a handful of complaints each election about the prohibition.
Officials said Maryland has had a limit on children in the voting area since 1977, when the state legislature passed a law prohibiting children over 5, officials said. Then-state senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Kensington) introduced a measure in 1997 to increase the age to 14. Van Hollen's bill was amended in the House of Delegates to drop the age to 10 and under.
"One of the issues was secrecy," said a state Election Board official who would not give her name. "Is your child going to tell how the parent voted or are older children influencing how they will?"
In Prince George's, parents scoffed at the reasoning. Karen Monks of Bowie was so upset that she wrote a letter to the editor in a local newspaper. "Maryland lawmakers should change the law that prohibits children older than 10 from accompanying a parent into the voting booth and allow families to encourage their children to become full participants in the democratic process when they, too, are old enough to vote," she wrote.
Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele (R), a Largo resident and the father of sons ages 10 and 14, said he opposes the prohibition. Steele said he would support a law to allow children to accompany their parents to the voting machine.
"I don't see how it impacts the election," Steele said as he campaigned at Kettering Baptist Church on Election Day. "It's an important part of the civics lesson and important to encourage kids to get involved in the civics process. How can they participate if they can't share voting with their parents?"
Raymond and Janice Wade took their son Raymond Jr., 11, to vote with them at Kettering Baptist Church. The child was allowed to accompany them to the voting machine.
"I didn't know it was a law on the books. Nobody said anything," Raymond Wade said. "But I think children should be allowed to go with their parents to vote so they will be used to it when they get old enough to vote."
Raymond Jr. said he has been accompanying his parents to the polls for as long as he can remember, and can't imagine not being able to go with them. He was allowed to push some of the buttons on the voting machine for his parents' choices, he said.
"It teaches me how to vote," he said. "Even some adults don't know how to vote."
Janice Wade, who is African American, said she believes it is especially important for African American children to learn about the voting process. The Wades have told their son that blacks once faced violence from racists for trying to vote and were required to pass literacy tests or pay "poll taxes" that kept many away from voting places. They also discussed the choices in various elections with their son. Sheriff-elect Michael Jackson came to their church.
"You want them to learn so they can become familiar with voting," Janice Wade said. "That's why a lot of people don't vote today -- because it's unfamiliar to them. You want them to know that we [African Americans] went through a lot to get here and that their vote counts."
Educators, too, said they believe children should be allowed to come to the polls. Many local schools participated in efforts to get children to go to the polls with parents, and some schools even urged children to encourage their parents to vote.
"I want my son to grow up seeing me vote so that he will understand how important it is," said Crystal Dorn, whose 6-year-old son, Marc-Anthony, attends Ardmore Elementary School in Landover, which awarded a pizza party to the classroom with the highest percentage of students whose parents voted in the Nov. 5 general election.
"Voting is a right that African Americans struggled to get," Dorn said. "I want my son to see me voting so he will get into the habit of voting before he gets older."