"How do we know that the voting isn't fixed?" demanded a Northern California high school student in Red Bluff. The youth was quizzing three state legislators perched in front of television cameras in the Capitol.
"How can we be certain that our votes are taken seriously?" asked another from a civics classroom at Lodi High School in the San Joaquin Valley.
Fair enough. Their fathers and mothers and other adults ask many of the same questions, but seldom so bluntly and rarely directed head-on to an elected state official.
In this case, the lawmakers had volunteered to participate Thursday in an innovative interactive television program aimed at better educating high school students in the often bewildering operations of their government. The issue was "Why Vote?"
Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway) answered the question about fixed elections. He said that California laws are so rigorous in protecting the purity of the ballot box that many Third World countries view the process as a model for their own emerging democracies.
As for the votes of young people being taken seriously, state Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton) replied that older voters historically go to the polls--whereas the young crowd does not.
"We know pretty much who votes and who doesn't," Johnston said candidly. "The connection is, if young people don't vote, then government will respond to those who do vote. By voting, you help influence how we make decisions."
Called "LegiSchool," the program was the third town hall-style interactive production in which the Legislature and Cal State Sacramento join with the nonprofit California Channel to bring processes of state government into high school classrooms statewide.
In Thursday's production, students from Sacramento and San Francisco high schools participated at a Capitol hearing room with the legislators in a round-table discussion. Meanwhile, students at Francisco Bravo Magnet School in East Los Angeles and in Lodi and Red Bluff watched the telecast and called in questions via telephone.
"We believe that [LegiSchool] . . . is the only one of its kind in the country," said Doug Stone of the California Assembly Television Project.
In addition to live telecasts, the 11-month-old enterprise makes available to high schools edited video of legislative debates on major issues--such as enactment of the "three strikes" sentencing law, which can put repeat felons behind bars for 25 years to life--and accompanying written materials.
The first two interactive broadcasts dealt with requiring public school students to wear uniforms and teen-age pregnancy.
Tim Hodson, a professor at Cal State Sacramento and project administrator, said that 150 high schools throughout California have tuned into the interactive television programs or received videos and written materials. He said LegiSchool's budget is $30,000, including services provided by Assembly television technicians.
Hodson said he considers the project highly successful, based on the "enthusiastic" reaction of students and teachers. "After they participate once, they want to participate again," he said.
"There has been a real payoff for high school students," Hodson said, recalling one encounter in which a nervous student awkwardly asked a question of a powerful senator. Not satisfied with the answer, the teen-ager inquired again.
Hodson recalled that the young man was highly impressed, telling him later: "I never knew that someone important would talk to me."