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High school students play Election Day role

In second period AP Government at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, there are just four students eligible to vote today.

Daniel Mortge is one of them.

“My dad wants to take a picture of me, but I told him, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” Mortge says.

But the rest of the students in this class defy just about every stereotype you’ve likely heard about teenagers and politics.

The class is taught by Andy Conneen and Dan Larsen, who are somewhat famous locally for getting high school kids involved in the political process. The two worked with past groups of students to get Illinois’ “Suffrage at 17” law passed. It allows 17-year-olds to vote in the primaries if they’ll be 18 by Election Day.

On the day I visit, the day before Election Day, one student is sharing a stack of political mail with the other students at his table, three others are preparing for their live election night broadcast, others are debriefing with the teachers about the last-minute push for the campaigns they’ve been working on.

And a handful are getting ready to work in jobs that are pivotal on the first Tuesday in November.

“I’m going to be an election judge tomorrow in Lake Zurich,” says Fathma Rahman, a 17-year-old student.

Rahman is one of about 50 Stevenson students serving as an election judge this year. Across the Chicago region, about 2,000 students are working as election judges. In Chicago, the Chicago Board of Elections and Mikva Challenge have teamed up for the past 15 years to get students working as judges.This year, nearly 1,500 students will work at city precincts.

All received the necessary training, but Rahman said she’s still nervous.

“It’s just kind of a big deal, you’re helping people, you’re putting through their votes,” Rahman says. “For them, they’re just filling it out and giving it to you. But then for you, it’s like ‘What if I mess up?’”

Students do have an academic incentive to get involved: five hours of what Conneen calls “political service” in exchange for a take-home essay for a portion of the final exam.

But Conneen says the class is more than just a class. 

“We try to make Civics a lifestyle,” he says.

He says many young people dismiss political participation altogether because they don’t see a party that they’d fit into.

“Both parties have become so polarized because those independents and moderates have left the parties, because they’re upset with how polarized the parties have become,” Conneen explains. “So it actually makes the problem worse.”

He says he thinks the solution to that polarization lies with young people, who tend to be moderates.

“We feel strongly about connecting students with the political parties,” Conneen says. “They tend to have a lot of common sense solutions to policy conflicts. We hear it all the time when we’re talking policy in class. And those voices should be heard by the parties.”

Conneen says students volunteer for both Republicans and Democrats, and the teachers try to keep a pretty even split. It isn’t too hard in Lake County, he says.

“Lake County voters will be pivotal in deciding who wins Governor,” Conneen says. “Lake County voters will be pivotal in deciding who wins the 10th Congressional District, and so these are two of the most watched, highly contested contests in the country.”

Most of these Stevenson students may not get to cast a ballot in those contests, but living in an area with races that are a toss-up can be a good backdrop for teaching democracy.

Before the bell rings, Conneen reminds students who are election judging to bring both food and extra work.

“Hey Election Judges! For the first time ever in Lake County, they actually expect that more voters will vote early (rather) than on election day, which means there might be some down time tomorrow. Bring a little homework. Bring a little homework,” Conneen tells them.

Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

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