Going public

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A Wisconsin Key Club hosts a candidate forum and voter-registration drive.

By Samantha Kupiainen

For the past three years, members of the Rhinelander High School Key Club in Wisconsin had a common goal: Increase the number of students and community members who are registered to vote and educate them on the importance of voting.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 55.4 percent of young adults ages 18-24 registered to vote in the 2016 election. In comparison, 78 percent of people age 65 or older were registered.

Club members toyed with the idea of holding a voter-registration forum but struggled to find the right time to do so. But in March, the club was able to make the event a reality. A month previously, the non-partisan League of Women Voters of the Northwoods expressed interest in collaborating with the club and the school’s social studies department. Key Club students suggested the voter-registration forum. By March 15, after only four weeks to prepare, club members facilitated their long-awaited event.

Karyn Roberts, the Key Club’s vice president, says the timing was perfect. The School District of Rhinelander was experiencing an increase in student enrollment, and school board elections are approaching.

“Ultimately, the reason for holding the forum comes down to the students — the new voters who have a voice but may not be informed,” Roberts explains. “With this forum, we were able to make voters aware that their opinion matters nationally and locally, and that there are opportunities to learn about candidates and issues.”

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During the event at Rhinelander High School, two students from the social studies department moderated and posed questions to the four school board candidates vying for three open slots. The questions were provided by Key Club members, social studies students and audience members. Candidates had 60 seconds to answer in rotation.

To prepare, students called to formally invite the candidates. Each participant then received a follow-up letter and on event day was greeted at the door by a Key Club officer. To spread the word, a Key Club officer appeared on local television.

Rhinelander High School Key Club advisor Denise Zalewski says community feedback has been “amazing.”

“We are considering hosting another forum for the next school year, considering the success of this one,” she says. “Our plan is to make it a common thing to do when you turn 18: Register to vote at the high school. We hope the thought process will be much like getting your driver’s license when you turn 16.”

So far, members are making progress toward that goal. This year alone, the Key Club has registered at least 80 students.

“The registration process started out slowly but now is becoming a regular quarterly event here at the high school,” says Zalewski.

Adds Roberts: “Holding this forum with the League of Women Voters allows us to help students and future leaders become informed and involved. It acknowledges the importance of our communities and the power we as students and adults hold to make a difference near and far.”

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