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Aurora high schoolers hold candidate fair and voter registration drive

150 students wander the school library holding bingo cards. They’re at Metea Valley High School in Aurora.

One bingo square reads “This person is a physician and believes every American deserves access to quality affordable health and mental health care.”

This is a student-organized candidate fair featuring 20 candidates running for everything from a U.S. House seat to local judges and forest preserve commissioner.

Rishvanth Amsarhaj is a senior at Metea and chair of its political engagement club, “Citizens of Metea.” The club has been organizing candidate fairs since 2020.

“We know that it might be a little bit scary to go talk to a judge or a national candidate,” he said. “So, we created a bingo card. The bingo card has a bunch of questions that are a little bit more familiar for students to ask either their friends or candidates.”

The candidates each introduced themselves and then stood around tables where students could ask them questions about the issues most important to them and understand more about what the candidates are running for and why.

So, bingo is meant to make those conversations easier. And, in true bingo fashion, get five in a row or 4 with a well-placed “Free Space” and they get a prize, outside of pride that they’re more well-informed. Amsarhaj says they get candy too.

And he says he was surprised about the issues his classmates have wanted to talk about, like personal finance.

“Most of us are seniors here," said Amsarhaj, "so we're about to go into the real world. So, it's important for us to kind of know what we're kind of getting ourselves into. I think the main thing will be like housing, money, finances."

Some of the students are still 17. In Illinois, 17-year olds can vote in the primary as long as they turn 18 by the general election in November.

50% of voters aged 18-29 voted in the 2020 presidential election. It was a big increase from 2016. They hope the trend will continue this year.

Joshua Willaby is another student at the candidate fair. He was excited to learn more about local offices since he knew that otherwise he would show up to the ballot box looking confused at a bunch of names and positions he’d never heard of.

Willaby also appreciated getting to ask the candidates about the issues most crucial to him.

“I think that the environment is a critical part because it has everything to do with our future and not a lot to do with the past,” he said.

Keira Nelson liked finding out that many of the candidates were just regular people who care.

“I thought it was cool how some of like, the candidates here didn't have that much local experience,” she said. “I thought that was kind of exciting to hear someone who was so passionate about their community, and they wanted to go out and try something new.”

The candidate fair isn’t the only way Metea students are engaging with the election this year. First off, they have to register to vote. And, with the help of the League of Women Voters, they set up tables outside of their government class where students could register.

Thanks to a2021 Illinois law, high schools cannot prohibit non-partisan voter registration activities.

Sue Fuhrer is a government teacher at Metea Valley. She’s helping count how many students have registered. So far, they’re at 84 for the day. They did an event in the fall as well.

“We always do it during our government classes," she said. "Today they're working on a project, so they are able to leave the classroom. And I think we had well over 100 in the fall."

Mia Reed is a senior who just got registered. She says she could have done it online, but liked that she could do it in person, hold up her hand, and swear an oath. It just made it all feel more serious.

“I wasn't originally raised in this district. I was raised in the next district over. There's a big poverty divide between the two," said Reed. "So, coming to this school, it was very obvious that I can't do a lot of the same things a lot of students here can do. Well, it became strikingly obvious that the way I make my difference is by voting, and I want people who are going to stand up for me.”

She and the other students know that there are pretty much no prominent politicians her age and most powerful people in government are substantially older. But, Reed says, she’s going to be the one who is around for the decisions that get made now -- so she has to do her part.

Early voting for the primaries is open in Illinois. Primary election day is March 19th.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.