Surge in Wake County high school students registering to vote

Wake County high school students have registered to vote this year in numbers more than triple the level of the last school year.

The Wake County school system has had 3,661 students register to vote during this school year, compared to 1,088 during the 2014-15 term. The school district has recently been encouraging high schools to conduct non-partisan voter registration drives as part of its strategic plan, which calls for sending forth graduates ready for “productive citizenship.”

“We don’t want to influence their choice of party affiliation or their choice of candidates, but we do like to stress that this is their way to make their voices heard,” said Abby Stotsenberg, Wake’s senior administrator for high school social studies and the district’s voter registration coordinator. “If they wish to guide decisions made by elected officials, this is the way to do it.”

Wake’s spike in civic participation comes at a time when young people have been historically underrepresented among voters. It also comes during an election year with pivotal federal, state and local contests on the fall ballot.

According to U.S. Census reports, fewer than half of 18-to-24-year-olds in the country reported they were registered to vote in the 2012 presidential election. That was lower than any other demographic group.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights organization, said changes made by the General Assembly to the state’s voting laws in 2013 have made it even harder on young people. In addition to requiring voters to show photo ID, the law made other changes that eliminated same-day voter registration, out-of-precinct voting and the ability for students as young as 16 to pre-register to vote.

“I congratulate the Wake County school system because the recent changes have almost all targeted young people,” Hall said.

In Wake, every high school has a voter registration coordinator who helps collect voter registration forms that are sent to the county elections board.

Stotsenberg said the most effective Wake high schools have individually contacted every student who would be 18 by the Nov. 8, 2016 general election. She said traditional methods such as setting up registration tables at school cafeterias aren’t as effective because many of the students who’d be eligible to vote this year are seniors who leave campus for lunch.

Heritage High in Wake Forest, Millbrook High in Raleigh, Green Hope High in Cary and Holly Springs High have been among the most successful schools, according to Stotsenberg.

Stotsenberg said Heritage High has both the most students registered at 383 and the highest percentage of voting-eligible students registered at 64 percent. She said Millbrook High had the second-highest percentage at 51 percent with 361 students registered.

Brian Schneidewind, a social studies teacher at Millbrook and the school’s voter registration coordinator, said he sends his AP Economics students into classrooms asking if students want to register to vote.

Nina Wilder, 17, a Millbrook High senior, is among Schneidewind’s students who’ve been recruiting students to vote. She also took advantage of the option under state law whereby voters who will be 18 as of the November election can vote in the primaries. She got a fist bump from a poll worker and proudly wore her “I voted” sticker.

“I was very invested in doing my civic duty to vote and I was excited to participate,” Wilder said.

Several nonprofit groups have also targeted high school students for voter registration drives.

Nicholas Hall, the program coordinator of Inspire NC, said the group has registered 1,814 young people statewide this school year. Hall said the key has been training student leaders to encourage their peers to register.

“An adult can go into a classroom and tell students why they should vote,” said Nicholas Hall, no relation to Bob Hall. “Some students will and some won’t. But when a student goes into a class, they realize it’s something they can be engaged in, too.”

Those newly registered teen voters could have some clout. North Carolina is among the top 10 states where the youth vote could have the most impact on this year’s elections, according to CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

“Unless we vote, we don’t have a voice, and unless we register we can’t vote.” Wilder said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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