For a real taste of the democratic process, take the time to participate in your neighborhood caucus. In Summit County, the Democrats will convene on March 18 and the Republicans will meet March 20.

If you are unfamiliar with the process don't be shy - you will likely be welcomed with open arms. There are often more delegate spots to fill than there are volunteers. No particular expertise is required - just a genuine interest in serving the best interests of your community.

At its best, the caucus system allows the smallest voice to be heard and carried forward to the next level. At its worst, especially when participation is low, it is vulnerable to manipulation by special interests hoping to sway election results before the ballots are finalized.

During the upcoming caucuses, held in school auditoriums throughout the county, citizens break up into precincts to select delegates to the county and state conventions. The goal is to establish widespread representation from as many neighborhoods as possible. If there are more volunteers than delegate spots, there may be an informal vote, but in many cases, if you raise your hand, you're it.

The delegates' next duty, after studying the slate of candidates, is to attend their party's county convention. The Summit County Democrats have scheduled theirs on March 29, the Republicans on April 3. At that point their job is to narrow the field of candidates in any race in which there is more than one candidate. The parties have their own formulas for declaring a winner, but in the event there is no clear majority, both candidates are forced into a primary runoff. (Based on the filings already, Republican delegates will be trying to narrow the sheriff's race.)

This year, there was a statewide debate about doing away with the neighborhood caucuses in favor of direct primaries. Granted, there are merits and pitfalls associated with both. Some say the caucuses cut regular voters out of the process, others say they serve to broaden local representation.

Either way caucuses only work when concerned citizens participate.

There is a lot at stake, regardless of party affiliation. This year, Summit County voters will choose a whole slate of department heads, including a new sheriff and auditor. To ensure the very best candidates end up on November's ballot - the ones who have the best skills and the best intentions - it is imperative to have broad, truly representative participate at the upcoming caucuses.

For more information or to preregister for the caucuses, go to:

Democratic Party: scdems.org

Republican Party: summitgop.org