Howell County clerk Dennis VonAllmen and Shelby Collins, Vanzant, look over a map of the county’s voting precincts. Collins, a student in one of Dr. Kathy Morrison’s American Democracy and Citizenship (PLS 101) classes at Missouri State University-West Plains, served as a poll worker Nov. 8 as part of a service learning project for the class.

Ten students from Dr. Kathy Morrison’s American Democracy and Citizenship (PLS 101) classes at Missouri State University-West Plains saw democracy in action first hand when they served as deputy clerks and election judges in area counties during the Nov. 8 General Election.

Through this service-learning project, which Morrison has offered to her political science students during election years since 2006, participants gained a better understanding of the country’s election process through the various tasks they were assigned, including directing voters to the proper check-in lines at the polls, helping voters fill out change-of-address forms, reminding voters to have their IDs ready, and in some instances, counting ballots.

“This has been an extremely successful project,” Morrison said. “It not only benefits the individual student, but also our county clerks by providing workers at the polls on election day. Any time we can get our students out of the classroom and into an actual experience with government, it is a positive.”

To participate, students had to be registered voters and in “good standing” as citizens. They also had to submit a resume of their work, school or other experience along with a brief essay explaining why they wanted to be selected for the project. Those selected then attended election orientation training at the county clerk’s office to learn the “nuts and bolts” of the election process. Following the election, participants submitted a two to three page essay to Morrison describing their experience at the polls to earn 30 public service points in their class.

“This is serious business, and doing a good job matters,” Morrison said. “In the past, our students have been so effective in their work at the polls that the polling judges have specifically asked for them to come back the next election cycle and serve again. This is service learning at its most effective level in that it provides both a real service to our community and also to our students by allowing them to participate officially in the most important institution of our democracy – elections.”

Howell County Clerk Dennis VonAllmen agreed, calling the program a “win-win” situation for all parties involved.

“In large elections in the large polling locations, the students are very beneficial. If we did not have them, we would be out in the community trying to find individuals to fill these roles,” he said.

For the Nov. 8 election, over 65 percent of the 27,007 registered voters in Howell County cast ballots, he said.

“The main focus of what we ask these students to do is to help us in facilitating people through the lines,” he said. “When you have a large precinct, just a few seconds can make a huge difference in moving the line along.”

Seven of the 10 students who participated Nov. 8 worked in the larger precincts for Howell County: Shelby Collins, Vanzant; Ciara Hogsett, Willow Springs; Dustin Winslow and Alexandra Waggoner, both of West Plains; and Misty Dickerson, Brittany Farias and Kelly Alcorn, all of Mountain View. Six of the students assisted at the polls, while one served as an election judge, VonAllmen said.

“I think the students enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a long day, but the feedback we’ve received has been very positive. They’ve not seen the election process up close like this before.”

For Collins, a first time voter and poll worker on Nov. 8, the experience was eye opening.

“When I first walked in, I thought, ‘Oh my!’” she said. “I wasn’t sure how it worked. But I thought it was very well organized and professional. It gave me a better idea of the process.”

Collins worked in Howell 1 precinct at the First Church of God in West Plains. She said she greeted voters and directed them to the correct line to pick up their ballots. She also helped some voters insert ballots correctly in the counting machine and, for 20 to 30 voters, assisted them with filling out the name change and/or change-of-address forms.

“I helped some who hadn’t voted in a long time,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and would definitely do it again. The people were very friendly and professional.”

As a first time voter, Collins said she thought it was interesting the ballot did not include all of the information for the statewide constitutional amendments.

“You really need to be informed on those issues before entering the polls,” she said.

The remaining three students who participated in the project worked in other counties. Thomas Pointer, a dual credit student at Gainesville High School, worked at the Ozark County Clerk’s office; Katelyn Townsend, Nixa, served in Christian County; and Tosha Gransee, West Plains, worked in Oregon County.

Pointer, who also voted in his first election Nov. 8, said he arrived at the Ozark County Clerk’s office shortly before the polls closed and helped take down the voting booths, collect ballots and data from all of the precincts, and count absentee ballots and votes cast for write-in candidates.

“It was much more interesting and exciting than I thought it would be,” he said. “While many of the write-in votes weren’t counted because they weren’t official write-in candidates, it was interesting to see so many who were dissatisfied with their choices. Also, seeing the high percentage of voters casting ballots made me hopeful for the future.”

Over 60 percent of Ozark County’s registered voters cast ballots, he added.

“There’s a lot that goes on after the polls close that I didn’t know about,” he said. “All of the write-in votes are counted by hand, which took up a significant portion of my time, and all of the absentee ballots had to be opened and run through the machine. Building up to the election, I heard a lot about ‘rigged’ elections. Being there assured me it’s not rigged or hacked and that American democracy is working.”

That’s exactly the type of knowledge Morrison hopes her students gain from the experience.

“It increases their value for our democracy because they have seen how it works and how very careful and fair our elections are at both recording and tallying votes and reporting totals to the Missouri Secretary of State,” she said. “This experience helps students take their place in our democracy, to feel ownership and responsibility for it. They know their vote counts because they have participated in the process by which they are counted.”

Morrison also hopes it generates a lifelong participation in the democratic process.

“The future of our democracy will be secure only if the younger generations step up and do their part,” she said. “I hope all of them will someday run for public office and that their enthusiasm for the political process spreads to their families and communities. They should never believe that our votes do not count, because they have seen that they do.”

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