When it comes to registering voters, Northeast Florida has a few things figured out.
Four of the state’s top five counties with the highest voter-registration rates are in the same area.
On an early Friday morning, while it was still dark out, Chris Chambless was at Middleburg High School.
Chambless is Clay County’s Supervisor of Elections, and he was already registering a student to vote before 7 a.m.
He was talking to a teen in the library.
“If you want to affiliate with a party you need to do that as well,” Chambless told the student who was filling out a voter registration form.
He was already signing someone up before his lecture began.
Chambless calls himself an elections geek, he says it’s the excitement and rush of the process.
He describes his outreach campaign as very aggressive.
Chambless says his team registers people at fireworks, Fourth of July celebrations, the apple pie celebration, the Soul Food Festival, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, just to name a few events.
His motto is, if there are two or more people there, the elections office will be there too. And he starts in elementary schools.
“We conduct elections so they vote for their favorite book and we have a little bit of a civics component to it as well,” Chambless said. “And that plants the seed.”
By high school he’s holding elections for Homecoming court and pre-registering teens to vote in contests that affect all of us.
Outreach Coordinator Thunder Nkeres lead Friday’s outreach activities including a voting 101 civics lesson.
Seventeen-year-old James Upchurch was sitting in the crowd. He says he voluntarily came to the presentation just to register. He’ll vote for the first time next year.
“I’m interested to see how Rubio does and Sanders does,” Upchurch said. “Those are my top picks from each party.”
He says he hasn’t picked a party yet because both have good qualities. He says he’s torn.
For the students already registered. They were grouped into teams tasked with trying to unscramble chunks of the U.S. Constitution printed on rectangles of paper.
As students students lined up to turn in their registration forms and there was a heap of reading materials for them to grab to take home. Election Supervisor Chris Chambless’s face smiled back from one brochure that read, “Hey Students! Why should you vote?” It’s his guide to understanding the electoral college.
In Clay County, at least 91 percent of the population over age 18 are signed up to vote. That’s far above the median of 76 percent among Florida counties.
Clay ranks fourth in the state, along with Santa Rosa, Nassau, Flagler and St. Johns counties rounding out the top 5. And the actual rates are probably even higher when you take out ineligible voters like felons.
But that doesn’t mean all registered voters are actually casting ballots, says University of North Florida political scientist Matt Childers.
“These county registrars who have almost 100 percent registration rates, they’re doing their job quite well and after that,” Childers said. “Now it’s up to the candidates to get these folks out to the polls next year.”
He says campaigns see Northeast Florida as a little bit less costly than other areas.
“Because you don’t have to take the time of getting these folks to register, they’re already on the books,” Childers said. “You just need to contact them closer to election day and actually get them to the polls.”
Even Clay, with its sky-high registration rate, had only about 73 percent of voters turn out in the 2012 presidential election. Chambless says he’s trying his hardest to help people understand how much voting matters.
“You have Dennis Frick in Orange Park election that lost by one vote and went home later to find that his son had not voted,” Chambless said.
And he said on multiple occasions council candidates only won by a few votes.
To try translating the thought of voting into an action of voting, Chambless says he opens as many early voting sites as possible and offers seniors rides to their polling places.