‘Playtime at the Polls’ coming to Portsmouth Middle School

Free program makes it easier for parents to vote, and teaches young children about elections

Posted 1/22/20

PORTSMOUTH — Participating in the democratic process is one of the great privileges a citizen has, but visiting a polling place with young children in tow can often make it seem more like …

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‘Playtime at the Polls’ coming to Portsmouth Middle School

Free program makes it easier for parents to vote, and teaches young children about elections

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Participating in the democratic process is one of the great privileges a citizen has, but visiting a polling place with young children in tow can often make it seem more like a chore.

For parents who vote at Portsmouth Middle School, however, casting a ballot will be a breeze in November.

Playtime at the Polls, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that provides child care at local polling places, received permission from the Portsmouth Canvassing Authority last week to set up an area near the polling stations at the middle school.

As of Monday, Portsmouth was one of 10 municipalities in Rhode Island that will offer Playtime at the Polls free of charge, according to its founder, Meg Carnaroli, who first got the idea in February 2018.

“I was looking at voter turnout rates for people of my age and thinking about what I could do. I know that child care is a barrier,” said Ms. Carnaroli, who lives in Scituate. “I thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea to set up a little area with crayons or whatever?”

Each Playtime at the Polls station has books, coloring materials, Play-Doh and other activities to keep kids busy while their parents cast their ballots. 

“This is something you can pop open and do the day of the election,” she said. “I don’t need a huge network of people working behind the scenes.”

The young tykes will also get a lesson in the electoral process, as each station will have its own mock voting booth.

“They vote for cats or dogs — just one,” said Ms. Carnaroli. “Dogs usually win.”

The program is offered at no cost because the group receives funding from grants, donations and sponsorships. “Right now, it’s family, and friends of friends, but we’re actively applying for grants,” she said.

Canvassers on board

Jacqueline Schulz, the town’s registrar of voters, said she was initially apprehensive when she first heard about Playtime at the Polls. 

“To be frank with you, When I first heard about it during the last election cycle, it was just another thing that I had to deal with. But it’s going to benefit the voters. I’m really enthusiastic I think Meg’s got a great program,” she said. “We advocated for it because it is something voters will benefit from — they’ll be able to bring their children. It’s a safe environment; she conducts background checks on all volunteers.”

Canvassers have their own provisions, however. 

“We have to have their insurance policy and proof that background checks were conducted. I am also going to attend her volunteer instruction and trainings,” she said, adding that everything needs to be done according to the town’s rules. “In the case of evacuation, for example, we’re responsible for everyone.”

Ms. Schulz said the play space will be set up so children and volunteers will be visible to voters.

“There are three or more volunteers set up. I’m going to encourage some of my poll workers who no longer work the polls to see if they’re interested in this,” she said.

The middle school was chosen due to the town’s demographics. There are 3,000 or more voters in that district, including a large percentage of families with young children, Ms. Schulz said. 

With Portsmouth on board, the nonprofit has 10 municipalities committed to Playtime at the Polls this November — one site in each city or town.

Ms. Carnaroli’s goal, however, is to have “one in every city or town in Rhode Island” this year, and ultimately multiple sites in each municipality. She hopes to create a model for volunteers, who can take over the reigns themselves going forward.

“I can’t be everywhere,” she pointed out.

Ms. Carnaroli said she doesn’t want to give the impression that her group is coming in to “take over” an election.

“The whole point is to build relationships. This is a great way for a community to show it values families. And, because it’s no cost, it’s an easy ‘yes’ to me.”

For more information about Playtime at the Polls, visit www.playtimeatthepolls.org.

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