TAMPA — Tristan Harris' family has always talked politics, but the 15-year-old didn't pay much attention to the 2008 presidential election.
This time around, he wasn't just interested in the election. He wanted to get involved, even though he won't be able to vote for a president until 2016.
The Tampa Preparatory School freshman volunteered for the Mitt Romney campaign this summer. He worked in the campaign's Harbour Island office on volunteer outreach projects five days a week in July.
"It was fun to know that somehow you were helping the election out," Harris said.
Seventeen-year-old Tampa Prep senior Kalia Bickers wanted her voice to count, too, even though she can't vote this year. She volunteered from late June until August in Port Richey with Organizing for America, the community organizing project of the Democratic National Committee. They made hundreds of calls each day to voters and possible volunteers.
"My dad had always talked to me about politics," Bickers said. "He believes strongly in finding out about both candidates."
Bickers thought about the issues important to her, like women's health care, gay rights and the availability of Pell grants.
"I side more with what Obama's beliefs are for building the middle class," she said.
Jobs and the economy are important issues to Harris, especially because he'll be in college when he can finally vote, and he agrees more with Republican stances on those issues.
"If I know I work really, really hard, I'd like to be able to have those successes," Harris said. "Everyone comes from different circumstances. People should take the best opportunity they have and use it to their full extent."
Harris is the youngest student in Enaye Englenton's politics class. Englenton, the history and social sciences chairperson, first taught the elective in 2008, offering the course to juniors and seniors during an election year to help them learn about political issues.
Harris sent an email to Englenton near the end of the summer to ask if he could take the class as a freshman. She encouraged him to take it in a few years. So he emailed her again, this time adding that he had volunteered for the Romney campaign, and she let him take the class.
"The goal is to be educated about issues going in," Englenton said. Some students come in with an opinion, and some don't. They research the issues, and talk about political ads and the debates.
Bickers couldn't take the class because it didn't fit her schedule, but she sat in on a recent Friday to talk about volunteering. Several of her and Harris' classmates also volunteered for the presidential campaigns this summer, though most of them can't vote this year.
Three boys in polo shirts and sneakers walk in late. Before Englenton can point this out, one stops to ask her, "If you're looking at polls, what poll would you use?" They debate the merits of the Gallup Poll as they take their seats.
The students are in the class for the same reason Bickers and Harris volunteered. They want a head start.
"I wanted to start forming good habits for next election," said junior Jade Ransohoff.
More than 2 million 18-29 year-olds are eligible to vote in Florida this year, according to estimates from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. In 2008, 53.3 percent of young people eligible in Florida voted.
"You don't have to work for a campaign," Bickers said. "But if they're 18, 19, they should inform themselves of what they're voting for."
Sometimes, people seem to take voting for granted, Harris said, but the energy he has seen at campaign rallies makes him think differently. "You just saw so many people and they are so into it," he said.
It was gratifying to help people maneuver the voter registration process, Bickers said. She recalled explaining in Spanish to a woman who had recently moved that she had to update her address to be able to vote.
An older woman who came to the Romney Harbour Island headquarters for campaign signs saw Harris working in the office. "She leaned over and said, 'It's nice to see young people in here.' "
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.