'All politics are local': Palatine league organizes 16 virtual election forums

The League of Women Voters of the Palatine Area worked hard to organize 16 virtual candidate forums in March for elections in the Northwest suburbs, and really wants to spread the message that "all politics are local."

Consolidated elections take place in odd-numbered years and feature races for local municipalities, schools, libraries, park districts, fire districts and townships. They also always have dismal voter turnout: In suburban Cook County, turnout was 14.1% in 2019, the lowest in 20 years, compared to 55.7% in the 2018 general election.

The irony is that local elections, on a practical level, have a much more tangible impact on people's daily lives, said Vicki Martin, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the Palatine Area.

"Everything that happens to your schools, your roads, your water, your library, your police ... all of these things are controlled by these local officials," she said. "These local officials, some of them will climb the ladder, and next thing you know, they run for state senator or governor or president."

The League of Women Voters is "fiercely nonpartisan," Martin said. The Palatine Area chapter hosted three election forums in the fall virtually due to COVID-19.

While having 16 forums in one month is not unusual, it's a lot more work to set up each one on Zoom, rather than rent a room at the local library and hold back-to-back events, she said.

Virtual forums don't necessarily have more live attendance but have greater overall viewership, because people have become much more aware that they can watch things at their own leisure, Martin said.

"We get greater exposure to the forum because of the Zoom format," she said.

The audience normally can submit questions during in-person forums. For the virtual forums, people are asked to submit questions when they register. The league also solicited questions from local civic organizations and the candidates themselves, Martin said. Questions should not target specific candidates, so they can be answered by all of them.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people want to hear from school board candidates about in-person versus remote learning, Martin said. She also anticipates questions on cultural responsive teaching, affordable housing, help during the COVID-19 pandemic, and equity and diversity.

A total of seven moderators, all women, will lead the 16 forums. None are voters in the races they moderate and all went through training on how to run forums. Five are Palatine Area chapter members. The other two came on board thanks to a partnership between the chapter and the Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Martin said.

Moderator Katherine Sawyer, associate vice president of marketing and communication for Oakton Community College, said she joined the league in the run-up to the presidential election of 2016.

"I attended a forum in Palatine and I was just really impressed with the way they brought people together to have these conversations and to ask the questions that were very important to their local community," she said.

Sawyer, who has moderated eight forums in previous elections, is slated for two in March. She prepares by reading meeting minutes of local government bodies and reading local news, but she prioritizes voters' questions, she said.

The virtual format makes it more accessible for people, which is a plus, she said. The downside is that, well, it's not in person.

"You don't get to see other candidates as they are taking notes or listening. Those nuances are lost. ... You are missing the dynamics of being a room and just feeling the audience's presence, and their interest and engagement in the process."

The Palatine Area chapter has grown from 80 members in 2018 to its current 133, and it has been working on increasing male membership, as well as ethnic and age diversity, Martin said.

"We need to get a more representative viewpoint. The league has been older white ladies, really forever, and we need to change that," she said.

Katherine S. Sawyer, associate vice president of marketing and communication for Oakton Community College, is a member of the League of Women Voters of the Palatine Area, for which she also serves as election forum moderator. Courtesy of the League of Women Voters of the Palatine Area

Virtual election forums in Northwest suburbs

Here are the dates and times of the 16 virtual election forums in March organized by the League of Women Voters of the Palatine Area with co-sponsors Barrington Area Library, Palatine Public Library, Rolling Meadows Library, Schaumburg Township District Library and Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

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Barrington Area Library board: 4 to 5 p.m. March 13

Barrington Area Unit District 220 board: 1:30 to 3 p.m. March 13

Barrington Hills village president: 9 to 10 a.m. March 6

Barrington Hills village trustee: 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. March 6

Harper Community College board: 2:45 to 3:45 p.m. March 20

Hoffman Estates village president: 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. March 13:

Hoffman Estates village trustee: 1 to 2:30 p.m. March 13

North Barrington village trustee: 1 to 2 p.m. March 6

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 board: 2 to 3:30 p.m. March 14

Palatine Township clerk: 8 to 8:30 p.m. March 11

Palatine Township highway commissioner: 8 to 8:30 p.m. March 9

Palatine Township supervisor: 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 11

Palatine Township trustee: 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 9

Rolling Meadows alderman: 1 to 2 p.m. March 20

Schaumburg Township trustee: 7 to 8:30 p.m. March 15

Schaumburg Township District Library board: 11 a.m. to noon March 13

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