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Gun-control movement fuels students' involvement in electoral process

Jamie Martines
| Thursday, May 31, 2018, 6:00 p.m.
Tribune-Review

In the months since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, students across Southwestern Pennsylvania have marched, rallied and walked out of class to advocate for school safety and gun control.

Now, students hope to register their peers to vote.

"Especially with the political climate, I think it's super important for all of us to be involved," said Lainey Kasian, a senior at Fox Chapel Area High School who helped to coordinate recent voter registration efforts.

Fox Chapel Area was recognized this month with Derry Area and Mt. Pleasant Area high schools in Westmoreland County with the Governor's Civic Engagement Award — a joint initiative of the Pennsylvania Departments of Education and State and the nonprofit Inspire U.S., a nonpartisan organization that offers resources and training to young people interested in getting peers involved in the electoral process. The award recognizes schools that get the high percentages of eligible students registered to vote.

Since the award was instituted at the beginning of the school year, 16 schools across the state have qualified. Schools that register 65 percent of eligible students are awarded a Silver Level Award, while those that register at least 85 percent of eligible students are awarded the Gold Level Award.

Students may register to vote if they are 18 or will turn 18 on or before the next election, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

"These schools help to ensure that each new generation sustains and strengthens the values of democracy that undergird our American system of government," Peter Speaks, deputy secretary for regulatory programs said in a statement.

Voters between 18 and 24 account for about 8 percent of Pennsylvania's over 8 million registered voters, according to state figures.

Allegheny has 73,358 voters under the age of 24, which is the smallest segment of 926,115 registered voters in the county. Voters 25 to 34 years old account for the largest segment — 186,733, according to state data.

There are 16,363 voters under the age of 24 in Westmoreland County, which has a total of 245,537 registered voters. That's compared to 50,007 voters between the ages of 55 and 64, the largest segment of registered voters, according to state data.

Young voters historically turn out in low numbers. A report by Tufts University and the Brookings Institution shows that the 2016 presidential election was no different.

Young adult turnout in 2016 was similar to 2012, with about 50 percent of those 18 to 29 casting a vote.

Registration drive organizers like Chelsea Bisi, a senior at Derry Area, said that she hopes the drives will get students thinking about voting and becoming more involved in the political process.

"I hope that this is a great first stepping stone," Bisi said. "Obviously, you can't force anyone to go and vote."

Derry Area achieved 87.8 percent registration of eligible students — about 140 students out of a graduating class of about 155 — and was recognized Thursday with a Gold Level Award.

Diana Beasley, a Fox Chapel senior, also acknowledged that it's going to take more than registering students to get them to the polls. She encouraged teachers, parents and other adults to talk to young people about current events and to guide them in the voting process.

"If kids ask questions, just explain," said Beasley, who wasn't old enough to vote when she volunteered to start a voter registration drive in January.

She said that she became interested in the efforts through her Advanced Placement Government class, taught by social studies teacher Jennifer Klein.

"Kids want to make a difference, and they want to do more than walk out, they want to do more than Tweet something, and this gives them another way to get involved," Klein said.

Fox Chapel also received a Gold Level Award, achieving 85 percent registration of eligible students.

There are about 325 students in the graduating class, according to the district website.

Mt. Pleasant Area also snagged a Gold Level Award, registering 91.2 percent of eligible students. There are about 160 students in the graduating class, according to state Department of Education data.

David Capozzi, a Mt. Pleasant social studies teacher, coordinated the efforts.

Though he's been helping students register to vote for several years — he's been teaching seniors for 25 out of a total of 28 years — Capozzi said that linking up with Inspire U.S. helped to get the students more involved and excited about participating in the political process.

"I think that because of recent events, recent elections, there's a little bit more of an interest than maybe there was at one time," Capozzi said, citing the recent special election in the 18th Congressional District as an example. "We're just trying to emphasize, and trying to encourage them, to be more proactive than reactive."

Inspire U.S. is active in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin and has helped to register more than 50,000 high school students from 321 high schools over the last three years, according to information provided by the organization.

It is one of several organizations supporting students in voter registration efforts. HeadCount, which typically sets up drives at concert and festival venues, partnered with March for Our Lives in March to manage voter registration at 30 marches, including the main march organized by students from the Parkland school in Washington, D.C.

The organization has also been available to support students in cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, according to Pittsburgh March for Our Lives co-Coordinator Erin Simard.

"I think all of the school shootings that have happened since Parkland have reinforced the idea that this is such an important issue," Simard said.

Simard, a junior at Shady Side Academy, organized a small voter registration drive at her high school this month. She said that the students at the helm of the Pittsburgh march have plans to reorganize their group over the summer in order to focus on voter registration and continuing discussions around school safety and gun violence ahead of November.

"I have faith that we'll be working on this, however long it needs, until it's fixed," she said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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