By GWEN OREL
Many of the members of the Montclair High School Democrats, and most of the club’s executive board, are not old enough to vote.
But they know elections matter — not just national elections, but local ones as well.
This spring, they planned to hold a Youth and Politics forum where the candidates for Township Council would answer questions submitted in advance by their peers and by other township residents.
When social distancing made holding the forum in person impossible, MHS Democrats turned to YouTube.
They recorded themselves asking questions to the candidates, who chose the ones they would answer and sent video back. Montclair’s mail-in-only municipal election begins April 22 and concludes on May 12.
Junior and board Vice President Maggie Borgen edited the clips, which are all available on
YouTube, and have been shared widely on different platforms.
MHS Democrats are quick to point out that while “Democrats” is in their name, the forum is nonpartisan. The group was founded this past summer and has about 30 students. Borgen, 17, said that when the board found out there would be social distancing, they looked for a way to hold the forum, even if people could not be together.
Having the candidates film answers to their questions was a natural, she said. Candidates were given four minutes to answer, and mayoral candidates were given eight.
The mayoral candidates have individual videos, while the others are in a “debate” format, with all candidates for the Third Ward council seat together, for example. Each video shows an officer of MHS Democrats asking a question, which is then answered by the candidates.
The board planned the series over FaceTime, Borgen said.
The questions, said 17-year-old Owen Duncan, also a junior and the club’s head of outreach, focused on the candidates’ current and past policy positions. Duncan sent emails to Montclair community leaders as well as to the schools, asking for input.
When the regular school meetings became impossible, it would have been easy to scrap the project. But MHS Democrats did not want to.
“There’s still an election coming up,” said MHS Democrats President Jacob Schmeltz, a senior. At 18, Schmletz is old enough to vote. “Nobody should be making their election decisions blindly,” he said. “We want to inform voters. And even though we’re going through a pandemic, it’s still really, really important to get the word out of who the candidates are and what they stand for.”
There hasn’t been a contested municipal election since 2012, when Schmeltz was 10. “I
wasn’t paying attention,” he said with a laugh.
And even younger students like to understand what is going on, Duncan said. “The students I choose to be around all really value political involvement, and are eager to get involved,” he said.
Duncan said he began learning a bit about municipal government when he started attending Board of Education meetings about a year ago, but now he knows even more.
The questions submitted touch on issues important to young people, like climate change and how the pandemic is affecting education.
“There’s no escaping the municipal response to the pandemic,” Duncan said.
Miles Quarterman, club treasurer, said that although he cannot vote, the election will have
an impact on him. “It really does affect us, especially now,” he said. Quarterman is 17, and a junior.
Some of the issues affect students directly. “There has been a lot of sentiment about the school board, and obviously we’ve had a lot of issues with the school, from the stairs collapsing last year, to rotating superintendents and rotating principals,” Schmeltz said. “Students are really aware of the school board and their actions.
“So if a high school student asks me why does this matter, why do the elections matter, I say, ‘Do you care about the future of your school?’ Students have really been paying attention to the school board over the past couple of years.”
Borgen said that she began to be politically active following the 2016 presidential election. One thing she has noticed is that local politics affects her day-to-day life.
“It’s what you’re going to see in your backyard. And the importance of knowing what’s happening in our town, and just being educated, and even if you can’t vote, in a few years you’ll be able to vote. And so you’re going to want to be able to have a voice at the table for which leaders are there.”
And they can influence the adults around them, too, Borgen said, as well as friends who might be old enough to vote.
Her mother was out walking the dog and bumped into a neighbor who said the videos of the candidates had been helpful to her, Borgen said.
The group has been in touch with New Jersey High School Democrats, who are impressed with the YouTube series and may use it as a model, Duncan said. Schmeltz said the group is also affiliated with High School Democrats of America, which is in turn affiliated with the national Democratic Party.
But, they stressed, this forum was open to all. There is no comparable Montclair High School Republicans club, but all were welcome to participate.
Though not being able to hold a live forum with the candidates was disappointing, having the candidates choose which questions to answer meant they addressed the ones they were the most passionate about, Borgen said.
Duncan added, “I think everyone looks for different things in a candidate. So we hope that the range of questions that we provided and the answers that were provided give people a good sense of who they should support, and who really resonates with them.”
Quarterman agreed. “I was really, really impressed with all of the candidates,” he said. “Just with their depth of knowledge, how much they really do care, the ideas that they had.”
And, said Borgen, editing the clips together has given her extra insight, too.
“I’ve really come to, like, appreciate those who have to moderate debates and figure out the questions,” she said.