SOUTH BEND —A candidate for St. Joseph Probate Court Judge is raising concerns about a local organization bussing hundreds of recently registered high school voters to the polls Saturday morning.
Ken Sheetz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the May 8 primary, said it is "unfortunate" the students will cast their ballots just hours before a forum at Indiana University South Bend for the six judge candidates.
For the last three months, the League of Women Voters has helped to register more than 700 local high schoolers by giving presentations and providing voter registration forms. The Michiana Voting Coalition will provide transportation from five local high schools to bring the newly registered students to the polls in a "Flash Vote" scheduled for noon Saturday at the County-City Building.
Sheetz said he is concerned about how well young people know local issues.
"Now you’ve got potential new voters coming in the system, and the first thing we do is throw them into a voting place where they are supposed to select a candidate on something they potentially know nothing about," Sheetz said.
Sheetz said he would have liked the Coalition to bus the students to the polls after, rather than before, Saturday’s forum for the probate judge candidates.
The League of Women Voters had no comment regarding Sheetz’s statements.
Sheetz’s Democratic and Republican opponents said they did not share his concerns, and that any effort to register young people to vote was a good one, regardless of timing.
"I’m sure you could find a lot of high school students who know more about the issues than a lot of the voters," Democratic candidate Stephen Drendall said. "It’s part of the territory."
When Sheetz learned of the "Flash Vote," he said he contacted local high schools asking if he could come in and speak with students about how Probate Court works and affects their lives before they went to the polls.
Sheetz said he got no response.
"We made contact with the school system, individual schools, and they didn’t want anybody to come in and discuss the importance of the race, whether we were speaking as a candidate, an informed citizen, or as a group (of candidates)," Sheetz said.
Sue Coney, spokeswoman for South Bend Community School Corporation, said the school system generally welcomes visits by elected officials to talk about their job and civic issues. But visits from candidates seeking public office are handled differently.
"During an election season we have to be very careful about providing access to voters," Coney said. "... It's not likely we would allow the various candidates to come in."
Unless, she said, there was a forum at the school or another event where all the candidates were present.
Elizabeth Bennion, director of the American Democracy Project, which organized Saturday’s forum, said she was also disappointed the "Flash Vote" is before the forum.
"That's certainly a valid concern and one that I actually share," Bennion said. "I think we were disappointed in the timing, but it was two different organizing groups working independently and unfortunately the timing did not work out terribly well."
Bennion said she applauds the work of the League of Women Voters and the Michiana Voting Coalition for their voting drive. She said the Flash Vote date and forum date were finalized separately.
Kelly Sanford, co-president of the League of Women voters, said the voter registration drive was a success and a hopeful sign.
"We're very excited that we got 720 students registered to vote," Sanford said. "And we hope this will take some anxiety off their first time voting. They can come and do it with their friends."
Staff writer Mary Kate Malone:
If you go
The six candidates for St. Joseph County Probate Judge will discuss issues at 3 p.m. Saturday at Indiana University South Bend.