By Sue Botos
The candidates for Cuyahoga County Council District 2 met for a forum on Oct. 10 and, seated on the stage, faced an auditorium full of particularly well-informed voters.
“Those questions were tough; very thought-provoking,” commented Anna Melendez after the hourlong debate, during which she and incumbent Dale Miller responded to issues ranging from the centralization of county safety forces, to the environment, to the creation of jobs.
But this wasn’t the typical candidate forum. Some questions centered on topics such as texting while driving and childhood obesity and, although the audience members would actually be voting the following day, most would have to wait a few years to cast an official ballot.
The forum, which took place at Magnificat High School, was part of the League of Women Voters’ (LWV) mock election program which, this year, involved more than 3,000 students in four Cuyahoga County high schools, including Shaw in East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Magnificat and St. Edward in Lakewood.
The two-day simulated election at the schools included a voter registration day, a published, nonpartisan voters’ guide for each student and a LWV-moderated candidate forum. The event wrapped up with a precinct ballot election conducted by volunteer workers and overseen by the county board of elections.
Each registered voter at Magnificat cast a ballot for County Council District 2, U.S. senator and for president. According to information provided by the LWV, the county council candidates were selected for the Magnificat event because District 2 includes a portion of the Westside, including Lakewood, and is one of the only council races being contested.
League of Women Voters Co-President Mary Lou Jones told the students before the debate, “Some of you seniors will actually vote (in the Nov. 6 election). This is about learning how important it is to be a lifetime voter.”
Moderator Mary Osburn explained the debate process to the students as well as the function of County Council. “Local elections are important. National elections are not the only important part of the voting process. Local elections affect your lives more directly,” she stressed.
Osburn was also impressed with the questions, asked directly by students rather than the usual forum method of submitting written queries. “I’ve been moderating for quite some time, and I’ve rarely seen such thought-provoking questions,” she commented.
According to social studies teacher Diane Visgak, students from various classes submitted questions, and a maximum of 15 were selected. The students posing the queries to Miller and Melendez were not necessarily asking their own questions, and some inquiries were combined. “We had 15 students ask questions about the environment, so we compiled their questions into a single question,” she stated.
Marilyn Arundel, dean of faculty and academics, said that Magnificat and St. Edward were the first private high schools contacted by the LWV to participate in the mock election program. “The LWV tries to work with larger schools where they have a sense that the students are interested in the working of government and cognizant of their civic responsibilities,” she stated.
Students not only were engaged and attentive during the forum, but took the entire process seriously, especially juniors and seniors nearing voting age. Some said they found it very interesting to witness an actual debate, and that it made the process “more real” to them. Some also expressed an interest in learning more about some of the issues that were raised during the candidates’ forum.
As they made their way to actual voting booths in the school cafeteria the next day, students had an air of confidence and a feeling that the “mystery” behind the selecting public officials had been removed.
Arundel hoped that the event would impress upon the students the importance of voting. “I hope that the two-day process will raise students’ awareness of not only the voting process, but also of their rights and responsibilities as citizens to be informed voters and to carefully examine and consider the positions of the candidates on issues and programs. I also anticipate that the students will recognize that as future leaders in the greater community, their voices really do matter and need to be heard,” she stated.
SIDEBAR: Here are the results after the Magnificat mock election votes were tabulated:
Barack Obama 251
Mitt Romney 376
Josh Mandel 396
Sherrod Brown 231
County Council District 2
Dale Miller 441
Anna Melendez 173