WOODBINE | Tom Canning has long known there was a voter turnout problem in Camden County. Until this past week he feared there might also be a volunteer turnout problem.
Canning is one of a group of nine volunteers working to increase voter registration and participation in election throughout the county. He spoke Monday night at the St. Marys City Council meeting to say he was having trouble finding enough volunteers to staff his group’s booth at the Kingsland Catfish Festival during Labor Day weekend.
By Thursday, all the open slots were filled, Canning said in a phone interview.
His immediate volunteer problem solved, he said there is still plenty of work to be done to boost the numbers at voting precincts.
The group trying to solve that problem doesn’t have a name and its members don’t want one, he said.
“We are grassroots and non-aligned, just trying to increase participation,” Canning said, asserting that he has no political motivation other than to improve the county’s “abysmal” voter turnout.
As of Aug. 1 there were 24,790 registered voters in the county, according to data available form the Secretary of State’s website. That’s roughly 60 percent of the estimated number of residents 18 and older. Of those registered, only 18.63 percent bothered to vote in the May 20 primaries this year.
Although turnout increases for general elections, Camden County’s rate always trail the state numbers, Canning said.
In 2012, 66 percent of registered voters showed up at county polls. State turnout was 73 percent. In 2010, the last non-presidential general election, only 41 percent bothered to vote compared to the state turnout of 52 percent.
Canning’s group grew out of the Camden Roundtable, a semimonthly breakfast meeting of concerned citizens who gather to discuss various local topics.
“About six months ago a group of [roundtable members] got together and said, ‘We share this common interest,’ ” Canning said.
Within a month the group was preparing a list of things they thought they could do to increase participation.
“Of course, voting apathy is such a monstrous problem there is not just one thing you can point to and say, ‘I’m going to fix that,’ ” he said.
But the group did decide they could make an impact at the July Fourth festival.
From the booth, members engaged passers-by and asked if they were registered to vote. They also offered to educate people about absentee and early voting.
Canning was also concerned that some residents in the county didn’t vote because they were unsure how to use the electronic voting machines.
To solve that problem he contacted county probate court Judge Robert Sweatt Jr. to ask about ways to educate the public.
“Come to find out they actually have a machine set up for purposes of training and demonstration,” Canning said.
Tanya Glazebrook, a group member who recently moved to the area from California, said she was skeptical of Canning’s plan at first. She just didn’t believe people were intimidated by the voting machines and needed to be shown how to use them.
“Before we started I said, ‘Tom, give me a break,’ ” she said. “We had a side bet going [on July Fourth] that he wouldn’t show many people how to use the machine.”
Glazebrook said she was shocked at a number of people said they would appreciate the help in learning how to vote on the machine.
“He won the bet,” she said.
She didn’t have hard numbers but said that, through their work at the booth on July 4, they were able to help dozens of people either register to vote or show them where online they could update their registration information.
“That’s quite an impact for one day,” Canning said.
The group is adding a few more days to its calendar prior to the November election. In addition to the upcoming Catfish Festival, they also plan to have a booth at the St. Marys Rock Shrimp Festival in October.