Mayor Andy Berke

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The event, Cap, Gown, Vote - Mayor’s Youth Council Edition, is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd. Doors open at 5 p.m. The public is invited to attend and encouraged to register online.



A group of high school students in Chattanooga is trying to figure out how to get more people to the polls this November.

Hamilton County was last among Tennessee's 95 counties in turnout for early voting for this year's primaries — in a state that, in general, historically hasn't had very high voter turnout.

So Mayor's Youth Council is holding a panel discussion Wednesday to talk about members' strategies and ideas for how to engage their peers, encourage them to vote and get involved with the political process.

They will pitch and discuss their ideas with panelists, including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, local attorney Chantelle Roberson and Jason Kander, former Missouri secretary of state and current president of Let America Vote.

Noah Risley, a junior at McCallie School, said he joined the Youth Council for the same reason he think it's important to vote.

"I think it's our duty to be politically engaged he said. "It's what our country is built on."

Let America Vote reached out to Chattanooga last year in hopes of partnering with the city on a voter turnout initiative, said Jermaine Freeman, economic development officer for the city. Berke serves on the board of advisers for the group, which was founded by Kander.

Chattanooga is one of the first cities the organization has launched its "Cap, Gown, Vote!" program, Kander said.

"Studies show that people who get engaged and start voting early, stay engaged," he said. "We are at a point right now when young people are really engaged, but some places make the [voting] process overly bureaucratic."

Let America Vote aims to partner with city mayors, high schools and activists to get students registered, or preregistered, to vote before this year's general election.

Freeman said many of last year's Youth Council and this year's 39 members were rallied by the youth activist momentum across the country that cropped up through the national school walkout movement and March for Our Lives after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February.

Risley said a lot of young people were becoming more politically active to advocate for things they cared about.

"You see this rising surge of young adults becoming more interested because our interests are not being represented," he said.

His fellow council member, Genna Ringler, a senior at Baylor School, said she joined the Youth Council because she wanted to give others a voice.

"I love giving everyone a voice," she said. "Being at school like Baylor, where there's people from all over the world, taught me to be inclusive. I love being involved in the community."

Each year, high school juniors and seniors are invited to apply to join the Youth Council. Typically, cohorts range in size to up to about 30 students. Previous councils have tackled projects focused on homelessness, mental health awareness, gang violence and other issues plaguing Chattanooga communities.

Of this year's 39 members, 17 come from local private schools and 22 from Hamilton County public schools.

One take away Freeman says he and the mayor hopes students will get from this project is that voting is a privilege.

"The mayor and I hope that the rest of the council walks away with is you shouldn't take the right to vote for granted," Freeman said. "Historically, this country and this county has not had a good history where everyone was able to vote."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.