ThreeSixty: Turn 18 by November? Make your vote count at Feb. 5 precinct caucus

THREE SIXTY

On a cold January night, America paid close attention to a small state in the middle of the country. In Iowa, the first state this year to hold a presidential caucus or primary, my AP government class from Como Park High School took a bus from St. Paul to Mason City to see Democrats and Republicans gather in record numbers to pick who they wanted to run for president.

It wasn’t what I expected. When we first entered the schools where the caucuses were held, we were handed stickers and other campaign swag.

But when people discovered that we were merely observers, nervous caucus-goers shooed us away to make sure we wouldn’t get in the way of their vote — which was tallied by raising their hands. The caucus we attended went for Hillary Clinton while Barack Obama won the state.

The excitement I saw in Iowa left me eager for my own chance to participate in the Minnesota caucuses on February 5. While you must be 18 to vote, you can be 17 to participate in the caucus — so long as you’ll be 18 by Election Day in November. You can find your caucus location at the Minnesota secretary of state’s Web site.

Lots of young people are turning out this year. According to WCCO.com, 65,000 voters between the ages of 18 and 30 participated in the Iowa caucuses, three times the number in the 2004 caucus.

For those who won’t be 18 by Nov. 4, don’t worry. Anyone can go and observe the process if they wish. If you do choose to observe, make sure that those who count the vote don’t count you because during the process, people can become very tense.

That’s what we saw in Iowa. At the Republican caucus, we had no clue who was in the lead by the time we left. Record numbers of voters showed up, and since they hadn’t imagined such an outpouring of interest, organized scrambled to find places to put the extra voters.

It was fun to see people championing their candidates. A Mike Huckabee supporter wore a large wooden cross around her neck along with a lot of Huckabee stickers.

Will Huckabee win? my teacher asked.

“God willing!” she answered. We learned that night that the Arkansas governor won in Iowa thanks to strong support from fundamentalist Christians.

The major political parties are holding either a caucus or a primary in every state to choose delegates who will then choose a presidential candidate at their party conventions. Whoever garners the most delegates will become the nominee for president in November’s general election. This year’s party conventions will be in Denver, Colorado, in August for the Democrats, and in St. Paul in September for the Republicans.

In simple terms, a caucus is reminiscent of a town hall meeting where party members gather to pick their favorite candidates and decide on issues and positions for the party platform. Before 7 p.m., when the voting starts, everyone gathers in a big room as campaign volunteers hand out stickers and pamphlets trying to rally up that last vote.

During the actual voting, people go to separate rooms for each precinct. Each corner of the room is designated for a certain candidate. Supporters will go to their candidate’s corner for the first count. If a candidate doesn’t come up with 15 percent of the vote during the first round, supporters have to choose a different candidate.

That’s when the fun begins.

As the newly available voters gather in the middle of the room, campaigners swarm to get them to join their side. While a few may not give up their loyalty, most pick a new candidate and voting continues.

A primary, however, is more like the traditional voting that is behind a curtain in a private booth.

With different candidates winning different states, the race for the nomination has become closer than expected with a wild battle for votes. The biggest battle: getting the votes of the young.

If you’ll be 18 by November 4, you can make your vote count on February 5.

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