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Hamilton County poll worker Dante' Keote poses while on break during his Election Day shift at the Northside Presbyterian Church precinct. Earlier this year, Keote became the first 16-year-old to serve as a precinct worker. Photo by Mark Kennedy.

Dante' Keoke, a junior at Hixson High School, wasn't technically excused from school on Tuesday, but cut the kid a break.

Keoke, a member of the Hixson High School Air Force junior ROTC who turned 16 in May, became the youngest poll worker in Hamilton County history during the primaries in August.

Then, during the general election on Tuesday he was back at his post assisting voters at the Northside Presbyterian Church precinct in North Chattanooga while helping usher in a new era of under-18 poll workers.

"I was kind of star-struck that I was even able to do this," said Keoke, whose family is Native American from the Lakota Sioux tribe. "You'd think you'd have to be 18 or older to do something like this."

Keoke comes from a military family and says he hopes to get an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, where he would like to study nuclear engineering or nursing.

He has recently done an internship with State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and is trying to learn more about how government works, he said.

In a concession to COVID-19, state and local election officials this year lowered the eligibility age for poll workers to 16 (down from 17) to help shore up the ranks.

The normal pool of precinct workers had been depleted by COVID-19 fears among older workers, said Jim Frierson, officer of the election at the Northside Presbyterian Church precinct.

"Before COVID-19 there was no need to recruit young people," Frierson said. "When COVID hit, our list of 10 [poll workers] dropped to four."

On Tuesday during the morning rush, Keoke was stationed outside the Northside Presbyterian Church, greeting voters and directing them to the entrance of the polling place.

"We pushed through and made sure it was smooth sailing," Keoke said in a mid-afternoon interview. "We like to look at people's outfits. A lot of people have on very patriotic masks, red, white and blue."

Throughout the day, Keoke rotated through jobs at various work stations inside the precinct, checking IDs and voter records and issuing ballots.

"He is a very good people person," Frierson said.

Frierson said Keoke became the youngest poll worker to ever serve in Hamilton County earlier this year, a move that opened the door for more than a dozen under-18 workers countywide this week.

"It's been inspiring to be part of this generational turnover," said Keoke, who made $135 for his day's work on Tuesday. "I was genuinely happy that I had an impact in bringing in some new, younger people."

The pay works out to about $10 an hour, Frierson said, less that the hourly rate for a good babysitter.

"For no one is this about the dollars," Frierson said. "This is about citizen engagement."

So while he may have missed a day of school, Keoke also experienced a great civics lesson.

"I believe it's worth it, and so do my parents," Keoke said.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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