High school seniors register to vote in West Virginia
CRAIGSVILLE — The seniors of Richwood High School in Nicholas County walked into a classroom to sign papers. They weren’t registering for clubs, or sports or even to select the next homecoming king and queen.
These students were signing up to exercise a fundamental part of keeping a democratic republic functioning: they were registering to vote for the first time.
September is National Voter Registration Month and West Virginians have until Oct. 16 to register to vote in the Nov. 6 general election.
These seniors were just sophomores when record flooding in June 2016 damaged their high school. They’re now attending their last year of school in a former elementary school building and multiple connecting trailers a half hour away from the true home of the Lumberjacks.
Yet, much like the lumberjack they cheer for, these students are resilient. Richwood High School students won the Jennings Randolph Award for the 2017-2018 school year for registering 100 percent of their eligible high school students to vote — those who would turn 18 in time to vote in the next election.
With Thursday’s voter registration drive, these Lumberjacks hope to keep up the winning streak. Richwood High School seniors Kinley Miller, Sydney Taylor, Natasha Askew, Zach Taylor and Sidney Hacker re-arranged English teacher Kayla Thomas’ room, putting pledge cards, stickers and voter registration cards on each desk.
They’re not registering the whole senior class just yet — only the students who will turn 18 before Nov. 6. They’ll hold another drive later in the school year to get the rest of the seniors. The volunteers go over a list and bring in fellow classmates to register.
“I just think it’s very important for the students, especially younger people, to stay involved with our government and everything,” Zach Taylor said. “This is just a really great way to inform them and get everyone involved.”
“Last year when I registered to vote, I realized how important it was to be involved with your country,” said Askew. “I really just want to do the same and help register people to be involved.”
INSPIRED TO VOTE
For high schools like Richwood, there are multiple resources to help with encouraging the next generation to rock the vote. One organization has made it its mission of empowering high school students and giving them the tools to register their peers to vote.
Inspire U.S. is a peer-to-peer led nonpartisan organization that works with high school students and trains them on voter registration, voter engagement, and voter participation among their fellow high school students. Inspire came to West Virginia in 2014, becoming the second state. The organization has since spread to eight states.
According to turnout data compiled by Inspire, the average state turnout for the May 8 primary election for ages 18-20 was approximately 13 percent. Olivia McCuskey, a regional manager for Inspire, said the program helps remove the fear a high school student might have voting for the first time.
“There’s often a negative narrative painted against young people, especially millennials, saying they’re not involved in the voting process and don’t care about it and are apathetic about it,” McCuskey said. “I think a lot of times that’s due to a lack of knowledge. Humans instinctively fear the unknown, and voting is an unknown for 17 and 18-year-olds.
“When you go to them and break it down in simple-to-understand terms and break it down on a basis where high school students can see where it impacts their daily lives, it helps them understand why it’s important to become engaged now,” McCuskey said. “This generation is going to be the generation impacted by the laws, legislation, and the officials elected now, so getting them involved at an early age is extremely important.”
While she works with multiple states, West Virginia is where she calls home. She’s a native of St. Albans, a graduate of Nitro High School, and went on to graduate from Ohio University where she played women’s basketball.
Many young West Virginian’s leave, but McCuskey came back. She hopes that Inspire’s programs in the state help inspire high school students to take a greater interest in their communities and come back later to make a difference.
“It’s no secret that West Virginia is experiencing an extreme brain drain. Young people are leaving the state in a vast majority,” McCuskey said. “This is a way for young people in this state to get interested and take control of how to fix our state’s issues, so they can remain in their town and the state.”
Inspire works with a number of high schools and counties across the state. But while Inspire staff provide resources for the schools, it’s really the students themselves who organize the voter registration drives with help from Inspire, their teachers and principals, and county clerks and Secretary of State field representatives.
These students are called “Inspire Leaders,” and they work tirelessly to get their entire senior class — and sometimes juniors if they’ll be 18 by the next election — registered to vote.
“As Inspire and those Inspire Leaders, the teacher and the administration really catch on, it engrains a culture of civic responsibility into that school,” McCuskey said. “It’s much more effective if their peers and friends are talking to them about why it’s important to vote, which I think is why West Virginia has been so successful.”
Richwood High School became involved with Inspire during the 2017-2018 school year when students from neighboring Nicholas County High School held a voter registration drive at the school. Since then, Thomas — the school’s English teacher — became a sponsor for the group.
“Part of my goal is to prepare them to be productive citizens,” Thomas said. “I think this is a great way to start that first step into being involved in the community and being involved in what is happening around them and not just focusing on their own little bubble.”
Inspire trains these students to help other students register. They’re taught about what to fill out — and not to fill out — on voter registration forms. They taught how to engage and talk to fellow students.
“It’s great for me, because they do get that hands-on experience, the interaction, and the networking with people who they normally wouldn’t talk to,” Thomas said. “They talk to students all over the state and other schools. They’re just great ambassadors to their classmates and then to other schools as well. I’m very proud of them.”
It’s not just about voting. Inspire U.S. is partnering with 100 Days in Appalachia, a non-profit news partnership between West Virginia University, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and the Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky. Together, the groups created the Polling Project, which is working with teachers and students across the state and the Appalachian region.
Students participating in the Polling Project will be texted questions seeking their input on key issues in society and elections.
“I think especially following some of the national news coverage after the Parkland shooting and all the things that came about from that, there’s this narrative now that all young people are very liberal, and all young people have a very liberal agenda,” McCuskey said. “What the Polling Project is finding is that’s pretty far from the truth, especially in Appalachia. More and more voters, particularly young voters, don’t align with one political party or another. They have opinions on each side of the spectrum.”
MAKING IT EASY TO VOTE
Inspire works closely with many county clerks, who are responsible for voter registration in their counties, but they also work closely with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. Field representatives work with Inspire, the county clerks, schools and principals.
“Almost invariably it revolves around a particular person. It’s a civics teacher, it’s a coach, or a principal that gets it,” said Secretary of State Mac Warner. “People, like the folks at Inspire or in some cases the county clerk, are in these high schools encouraging people to register. I want to pat them on the back and give credit where credit is due.”
If students get 100 percent of their class registered, they’re eligible for the Jennings Randolph Award, named for former U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, the father of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote in the 1970s. Inspire Leaders are also eligible for job shadowing opportunities with the Honorary Secretary of State program.
Warner is used to going on missions as a retired Army lieutenant colonel. One of his missions after taking office in January 2016 was getting high school students engaged.
“If they have a positive experience, then they understand the process. If they see their peers participating, then they’re more likely to cast that first vote,” Warner said. “These people are turning 18 prior to the election. Programs, like Inspire and the Jennings Randolph Award, give us the opportunity to talk with them about the registration process.”
There are 1.2 million West Virginians registered to vote, and of that number, more than 78,000 registered since Warner took office. As of Wednesday, 24,357 18-year-olds have registered to vote in all 55 counties.
“Hopefully they’ll take advantage of being registered and participate in the November 6th election and cast that first ballot,” Warner said. “The more people that are involved, the more confidence we’ll all have that democracy has worked and the majority of people do want a particular person.”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Both Zach Taylor and Askew — who said they would be voting in November — want to see another Jennings Randolph Award on the wall of the school office next to the one the school earned last year.
“I would love to register 100 percent, that way we can get the reward,” Zach Taylor said. “That just means we did our job.”
“It would be an amazing opportunity to win that award again this year,” Askew said. “We would be very proud of ourselves.”