BY GLENN PUIT
LELAND — Get involved.
That was the simple life lesson conveyed to more than 1,000 northern Michigan students at a mock election at Leland Public Schools — an event to teach patriotism, democracy and the importance of public participation.
"Become involved," teacher Ed Wodek said Tuesday morning to an auditorium packed with teens from across the Grand Traverse region. "Whether it's politics, school or any other activity you aspire to, be involved."
The mock election was just that: a simulation of a political convention in which students lobbied their fellow students to vote for a particular political candidate. The event featured all the traditional trappings of politics: American flags waved in the stands, political signs bounced up and down in the basketball arena, and a Bruce Springsteen rock anthem blared in the background.
Real political candidates who sought to get the word out about their campaigns showed up and encouraged students to always vote.
"It's an opportunity to tell my story, and to make sure people in Leland know who I am," said U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, a Republican who had a staffer hand out campaign signs to students.
Allen O'Shea is a Democrat who seeks the state House seat in the 101st District. He was on hand to meet students, and said he was impressed with what he saw.
"It's educational for the students," O'Shea said. "It encourages young people to participate in the voting process."
The message of getting involved and the importance of voting resonated with Aaron Bigelow, a West Middle School student in Traverse City. Bigelow watched as fellow students approached the podium and made their cases for Benishek, O'Shea and others who've campaigned for president and the U.S. Senate.
Bigelow said he planned to vote for the Republican candidates at the mock rally, in part because his family leans to the right. He was also voting Republican, though, because he'd gone online to check out the candidates positions on the issues, and he liked what the Republicans had to say.
"The ones I'm voting for would help my dad by lowering his taxes," said Bigelow, adding a fringe benefit of the rally was "I get out of math class."
Leland 11th grader Noa Yaakovy thought the mock election was valuable. It was a primer, she said, for the importance of voting. She also liked the format that emphasized only positive information about candidates.
"I want to hear about what's good about people," Yaakovy said. "It's a learning experience for me. I really don't know a lot about the candidates other than the presidential."
The event was broadcast live on Michigan Government TV. Benzie Central High School teacher Donna Balazovic said 82 students from Benzie County participated. She, too, believes the event is a great learning experience for kids.
"This is as close as they can get to a "¦ realistic perspective on the elections process," said Balazovic. "I think it's a great opportunity for kids to get involved. We want them to be more comfortable in seeking out information and learning about their local governments and how they operate.
"This is a chance to get involved," Balazovic said. "Normally they are sitting on the sidelines watching, so it's a great opportunity for them to get a hands-on experience of what the entire United States is experiencing."