Dozens of young people and community members gathered at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Wednesday night to address one thing: how to get young people to the polls.
The Mayor's Youth Council, in partnership with Let America Vote, a national nonprofit focused on encouraging people to vote and advocating for less restrictive voting policies, pitched ideas on how to get young people engaged in the electoral process in Hamilton County.
"Tennessee sucks at voting," said Noah Risley, a junior at McCallie School, to the panel judging the students' ideas.
The judges included Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, local attorney Chantelle Roberson and Jason Kander, former Missouri secretary of state and current president of Let America Vote.
The five student groups presented potential ways to educate young voters and get them registered — and excited — to vote. The ideas included a social media campaigning using the hashtag "#YourVoteMatters," a "Vo-TEen Fair," a politically charged music festival and mock elections within local schools.
Zack Opengart, a senior at Chattanooga's Center for Creative Arts, showed the panelists a map of the United States he called "the apathy map." The map highlighted all the places where a large percentage of registered voters did not vote in the 2016 election.
"We are not at our peak of democracy when this many people are not voting," Opengart said.
Hamilton County was last among Tennessee's 95 counties in turnout for early voting for this year's primaries — in a state that historically hasn't had very high voter turnout.
Jermaine Freeman, economic development officer for the city and organizer of the youth council, said Let America Vote reached out to Chattanooga last year in hopes of partnering with the city on its voter turnout initiative, the "Cap, Gown, Vote!" program. Berke also serves on the board of advisers for the group, which was founded by Kander.
"We thought if we make their voices heard before they are able to vote, then maybe we would be able to encourage them to take a bigger part in democracy," Freeman said.
Risley said many people don't vote because they can't, not because they don't want to.
Let America Vote advocates for easier voting processes, such as automatic voter registration and not requiring photo identification, some things Kander worked on as Missouri's secretary of state.
"The purpose has been to make sure when there are politicians who seem to be making it more restrictive or seem to be making it harder to vote, we needed to engage more voters," he said. "The whole concept of the 'Cap, Gown, Vote!' program is to see if we can get more seniors [in high school] registered to vote before graduation."
Most of the 39 members of the Mayor's Youth Council, which includes high school juniors and seniors from public and private schools across the city, emphasized that their peers needed to be educated about voting, but agreed it was a civic responsibility.
Roberson stressed the council members needed to make sure to think about how they could get their peers interested.
"Make sure you ask 'How do we get them to care?' You guys are the choir," she told the council. "Why should they care? You tell them."
Roberson has also worked in the community around voting processes. She helped create the website, restoremyrights.com, which aims to help people with criminal histories regain the right to vote and expunge their records.
Community members also asked questions of the panelists, but most were directed at the students. They asked whether teens would be interested in voter education programs at Chattanooga's Youth and Family Development Centers or in ride-sharing groups on Election Day.
Overall, Berke said, the event illustrated why it's important to bring people together — and why it's important to vote.
"Every time we have more people participate, the results are better," he said. "And the same is true with elections. When more people are involved, the better."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.