ELECTION 2015: Pen High students get their chance to test the candidates

Penticton Secondary School hosting all candidates forum in advance of their school mock vote.

Most students at Penticton Secondary School aren’t old enough to vote, but they will be sharing their opinions with the community just in time for election day.

Students will face the same choices on their ballot as eligible voters in South Okanagan-West Kootenay, and sharing their results before the election. Despite their youth, students will be casting informed votes as an in-school, all-candidates forum takes place on Oct. 13 — a day before casting their mock votes.

Jozsef Varga, the Grade 12 organizer of Student Vote (a network that enables every school in Canada to run its own parallel election) at Pen High, said questions will come from students locally and nationally, and he expects topics to focus largely on the affordability of education and youth employment.

“The issues that really affect us right now,” said Varga. “We’re excited to have the Green candidate (Samantha Troy) there to talk about her party’s platform, especially the promise of zero tuition for post secondary.”

Brian Gray an independent candidate, has also been invited — and though they haven’t confirmed, Varga is hoping to hear political perspectives from outside the mainstream.

“I haven’t heard a great deal about the independents, but it would be really nice to have them show up because they could provide a different opinion than what we’re used to with our three major candidates and the Green,” said Varga.

Students won’t be hearing Conservative views, however because the party’s candidate Marshall Neufeld declined the invitation.  Varga believes the snub to be part of a broader strategy.

“The Conservative candidates are supposed to participate in as few debates as possible because (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper’s position has always been to not acknowledge or respond to public dissent, so as few debates would be great for their campaign.”

Varga hopes that by adding pressure Neufeld will reverse his decision. One of the reasons Barga is spearheading Student Vote at his school is an effort to counter the poor voter turnout by 18-25 year olds. He believes a major reason for low participation among young voters is a lack of engagement by major parties and their candidates.

“They’re not engaging us at all compared to people over 25 years old … Marshall is a great example of someone who doesn’t make kids want to vote,” he said.

Neufeld said he will not change his mind on the student-run forum because it is scheduled in the final week of the campaign and he will be fully engaged in getting people out to vote. He encourages any students who want to get involved to come to debates already scheduled across the riding.

“We’re more than happy to participate in a social engagement class of any kind following the election, and even during the election if it fits into the schedule, but that can’t be the priority,” he said. “We’re in the middle of an election campaign and we need to keep running this race.”

Varga believes it will be more effective if the politicians come to the students.

“I’m hoping that if students learn what the voting process is like in high school, that can carry forward to the next election and maybe they’ll learn about the candidates and they’ll actually go to a debate or two.”

Varga said his 18th birthday was a big deal for him because of voting eligibility. He isn’t sure what the effect a lower voting age would have on democracy, but he’s following the results of certain regions in Germany where they’re experimenting with a minimum voting age of 16.

Leslie Lacroix, the teacher overseeing the project, and moderator of the school’s forum, emphasizes the importance of voting to see that democracy isn’t taken for granted.

“By choosing not to show up, we are saying we’re content with a dictatorship; that they don’t want any input or say in it,” said Lacroix, who expects environmental issues and the laws surrounding marijuana will likely be hot topics at the forum.

If her students aren’t satisfied with any of the eligible candidates, she encourages them to spoil their ballots.

“That way at least you’ve participated — a spoiled ballot is an expression of anger; frustration.”

The Oct. 13 forum is open to the public and begins at 11:45 a.m. at Pen High.