Elections officials go where voters are

Voter registration drives are as important as ever going into another presidential election year, but it isn’t just the political parties trying to increase numbers on their sides. Sumter, Lake and Marion counties all are finding innovative ways to get their numbers up for the upcoming election cycle with the goal of not only improving voter turnout rates but also gaining more participants in the election. Between them, the three counties are trying strategies that include registering new Florida residents at meetings for Villages newcomers, going into high schools to sign up students turning 18, setting up registration tables at popular community events and teaming up with libraries. 

The reason elections offices are taking such a pro-active approach is simple, said Lake County Elections Supervisor Alan Hays.

“The foundation of our democracy is voting,” he said. “That’s the bedrock upon which our republic is built. It’s very, very important that everybody take their responsibility seriously, that they become informed about the issues and the candidates, and make sure they’re registered and vote in every election. We strive for as high a percentage as we can get for our elections.”

This isn’t an easy task, though, with so many potential voters “unwilling to engage” in politics, said Zach Baumann, a political science professor at Florida Southern College.

A variety of factors can turn people away from registering to vote, such as a general disdain for politics or a fear that registering will lead to jury duty — which is true in many other states but not Florida, where only the federal courts select jurors from voter rolls.

“Lowering barriers to voter registration — like by combining it with other events — might increase the number of people registering,” Baumann said.

In the tri-county area, more than 585,000 people are registered to vote. But more residents are moving here every day, and the deadline to register to vote in Florida’s presidential primary is less than five months away. 

In Florida, voters must be registered to vote 29 days ahead of an election in order to vote, which Baumann said can catch many people off-guard.

“Because people don’t start paying attention until it’s closer to an election, it could be too late (to register),” Baumann said. “Organizations that are getting out there — pounding the pavement, going out and trying to find those pockets of people who aren’t registered to vote — are critically important.”

Sumter County

The Sumter County Supervisor of Elections Offices focuses on joining forces with other large events already attracting people to register more voters.

In the coming months, about six registration drives will be circulating throughout the county, said Elections Supervisor Bill Keen.

As always, a major focus in Sumter County remains The Villages, where political fervor has consistently vaulted Sumter to the top of statewide election turnout rankings. The goals here aren’t as much in signing up first-time voters as updating information for Floridians with new addresses or registering first-time Florida voters who have moved here from other states.

The elections office routinely attends newcomers meetings in The Villages in order to bring the resources to register to vote directly to residents, Keen said.

Schools are another large source of possible voters as some students become adults and others qualify for being able to pre-register so they are automatically put into the system of registered voters when they turn 18.

“We’re scheduled to go to The Villages Charter School in a few weeks,” he said. “Then we’ll be going to multiple other high schools between now and 2020.”

In addition to having a focus on schools and those moving into The Villages, Keen said Wildwood’s Spooktacular on Oct. 25 will see a voter registration table by City Hall.

Events like this make it easy for the elections office to tag along and “get the word out,” Keen said.

“It allows us to get out and see the public as well,” he added. “A lot of people don’t realize when there’s a bookclosing coming up, and this educates them more about the electoral process.”

Sumter County’s strategy of making connections with potential voters at popular events is a smart one, Baumann said.

“We see everything from League of Women Voters to political parties canvassing schools and trying to encourage people who might be newly eligible to vote,” Baumann said. “If you’re teaming up with another organization that’s already going to have an audience, you’re increasing the likelihood that those people will register to vote.”

Lake County

The Lake County Supervisor of Elections Office also is no stranger to teaming up for events.

At the beginning of the month, the Lake County office and the county’s library system rolled out a Books and Ballots campaign.

With the dual purpose of increasing voter registration for National Voter Registration Day, which is Tuesday, and signing more people up for library cards in recognition of National Library Card Sign-up Month, the campaign has included representatives from local government and from the library system answering questions at libraries throughout Lake County.

Elections Supervisor Hays said the two organizations saw the overlap of dates and said, “Why not put these two events together?”

“We just are trying to make sure everybody who wants to register has the opportunity to register,” he said.

This is the first year Hays’ office has launched a joint effort with the library, and he said it’s been “very effective,” with about 25to 30 people having registered to vote after just a few weeks of the program.

His office’s goal is “for people to realize that every vote counts,” he said.

Residents can register to vote at the library and other government agencies anytime, Hays said, and the campaign is meant to serve as a reminder for those who haven’t done so yet.

A team-up like the one in Lake County is a unique tactic in a field without very many options for creativity, Baumann said.

“There aren’t many studies about what types of tactics are more effective than others because voter registration is fairly ubiquitous,” Baumann said. “You can do it any time you go to a government office. Knocking on doors and canvassing (are) good options — just being available to register voters.”

The campaign’s next local stop will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at the Lady Lake Public Library. More events are planned Tuesday at the libraries in Clermont and Groveland, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Fruitland Park Library. For more information and to see the schedule of when representatives will stop by libraries and other upcoming programs, visit lakevotes.com.

Marion County

Marion County’s elections supervisor, Wesley Wilcox, also has been on the hunt to get a higher representation of voters by setting his sights on one place in particular: high schools.

“We’re about to roll out our high school voter registration challenge,” Wilcox said, “which means we go to every high school in Marion County and challenge them to beat the other high schools to see who can get the most people registered.”

The scores are counted by percentage of eligible students in the school rather than overall numbers because some schools have more students, Wilcox said.

“They’re about to turn 18 and become an adult, and we’re educating these people on not only why it’s important to get registered but why it’s important to participate,” Wilcox said. “Just the group of seniors who get registered can really influence the outcome of an election if they all vote. We highlight that. In my opinion, that’s the most important part.”

Since changing the registration drive format in high schools to be a competition in 2016, Wilcox said there has been a 479% increase in participation among the students.

“It was a massive increase over what we had done in the past,” he said. “It’s been extremely successful.”

Although this is the only major drive Marion County’s election office hosts by itself, the office also participates in other events that already are being held in order to increase voter registration across the county.

Some other areas the elections office can be found include new teacher orientation weeks at the schools and the College of Central Florida’s orientation week. At the Ocala college’s most recent orientation, his office reported registering about 10 voters as well as taking information for about 10 people who are interested in becoming election workers.

Wilcox said the biggest component to a successful voter registration program is education.

Because many Floridians are automatically registered — or pre-registered if they are not 18 — to vote when getting a driver’s license, Wilcox said the drives mostly involve cleanup for those who don’t have updated information or for people who don’t have licenses or opted out of registration when getting them.

Efforts like this are strategic because “you want to go where the people are,” Baumann said.

“You might want to do the same on weekends in front of shopping malls or stores,” he said. “I think the (drives) that are most effective are simple.”

Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.