Marcus Whitman student Ariana Aspuria sat among the dozens of clusters scattered around the South Kitsap High School library during the Democratic caucus Saturday.
Her teacher, Mark Brown, was a precinct committee officer at her table, and the convener for the event.
As the group selected delegates to head off to the next Democratic meeting, someone jokingly suggested the 15-year-old Marcus Whitman student attend, to which Brown responded “she would be great.”
Because Aspuria didn’t just sit and observe, she got to participate. As the precinct took even turns speaking for each Democratic presidential candidate, Aspuria was welcome to raise her hand and speak for her preference.
“In class, we often are talking about a lot of the issues in the world,” Aspuria said. “This is an opportunity to come out and see how other people think and how my ideas correspond with theirs.”
She was one of many students welcomed to the Republican and Democratic caucuses over the weekend, and most received more than a lesson in civics, they also go some extra credit.
Seeing the system first-hand sheds light on the process. Washington state holds a presidential primary, which collects votes from both parties, but only the Republicans count the results.
The Democratic party looks entirely at the caucus results while Republicans split delegates between the results of the caucuses and the primary.
At the caucuses, neighbors gather around a table and take turns speaking for a particular candidate. Everyone signs in with a candidate preference. After the numbers are tallied, the group elects delegates to attend a larger, regional convention.
Officials from both parties explain that the experience teaches students about civic responsibility, and also gets future voters involved years in advance.
“It’s a great recruiting tool because we have an open door,” Brown said. “We want them to be able to participate and have a voice even if they don’t have a vote.”
Kitsap County Republican Party Chair Jack Hamilton agreed, noting that the party invited students to attend caucuses and other party events.
“We welcome them to come to our monthly executive board meetings,” he said. “We try to include them as much as possible.”
Teachers such as Brown prepped the students in the previous week, encouraging them to attend or at least talk with their parents about the event. Students then kept track of the results as they came in Saturday evening and returned Monday morning to the classroom to discuss what they saw.
“The best way to learn is to actually experience something,” Brown said. “The Democratic party encourages students to attend their caucuses so they learn how it really is.”
How it really is can be interpreted many ways. Aspuria saw an open system that allowed individuals to talk and share.
“I think that it’s very well thought-out,” she said. “It’s really thorough — there’s no cracks and no holes. It’s a way for people to express their thoughts and feelings.”
Aspuria came in supporting Democratic candidate Barack Obama, and said it was educational to hear from Hillary Clinton supporters.
“I learned the other side of the table,” she said. “Before, I didn’t get to think what Hillary supporters think.”
Marcus Whitman students Morganne Kentch and Makayla Lambert saw something different — the confrontational nature of the political process.
“It was very catty,” Kentch said at South Kitsap High School’s Democratic caucus. “It seemed like they had political parties inside their political parties. They got really off-topic a lot.”
However it’s seen, the students saw record turnout at both parties.
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South Kitsap sees record turnout at caucuses
Mikel Fogelman signed in at the Republican caucus East Port Orchard Elementary School wearing a black T-shirt with a white-screened image of Ronald Regan.
“Definitely what I want to see in a candidate is some Regan-esque qualities,” explained the 23-year-old South Kitsap resident.
It was his first caucus, a sentiment shared by many others at Republican and Democratic caucuses across South Kitsap, which saw record turnouts.
Democratic Convener Mark Brown said 490 residents showed up for the caucuses held at South Kitsap High School, significantly up from the approximately 100 who attended in 2004.
Kitsap County Republican Chair Jack Hamilton did not have numbers specific to South Kitsap, but said county-wide attendance doubled since 2004, bringing in 1,200.
The voters came with a strong sense that this election was significantly different.
“I understand the delegate race is more important this time around,” Fogelman said.
Brown cited Washington’s earlier caucus and tight delegate races as bringing out almost five times as many residents to the area Democratic caucuses.
“Usually we have our caucusin April,” Brown said. “By moving it up and it being so tight between (Hillary) Clinton and (Barack) Obama, people came out because it meant something … before it was a formality, now it’s the real meal deal.”
Hamilton credited the high turnout for Republicans to hard work in recruiting and advertising.
“We really work hard — seriously,” he said. “It’s as much working hard as it is anything else.”