Baltimore election had low turnout, high stakes

Here's what happened while you were sleeping on Tuesday. Or curing cancer, or searching the Internet for Scarlett Johansson pictures or whatever you were doing rather than voting:

The number of people who decide things in Baltimore, already a fraction of the city, shrank even further.

That is the upshot of a lower-than-low turnout in Tuesday's primary elections. Only 23 percent of registered voters, or fewer than one out of every four, chose who would lead the city for the next four years.

Now, I'm generally not a big turnout scold. Not to go all zen here, but not voting is voting. It's saying, "Whatever the rest of you decide, fine with me."

But we're not talking here about where to go for dinner, or what movie to see.

We're talking about a city of perhaps not constant sorrow, but constant carping: the crime, the schools, the taxes, the vacant houses, the this, the that. All coupled with the political complaints, particularly the one claiming that "they" decide everything.

"They" varies a bit. Sometimes it's Gov. Martin O'Malley and his machine, sometimes it's the downtown developer set, sometimes it's some local version of the Trilateral Commission, which I guess would be a combination of Hopkins, the Abell Foundation and Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting.

So give people an election, their one shot against "them," and they stay home. What's up with that?

This isn't an argument against Tuesday's results. For one thing, studies have shown that greater turnout doesn't necessarily change the outcome, so I'm guessing the results reflect the general sentiment in the city. The smaller you go, though, the bigger your vote looms: In Baltimore's 13th City Council District, for example, a mere 30 votes separated incumbent Warren Branch from challenger Shannon Sneed.

But of course the marquee race on the ballot, if there is such a thing in an election that drew so few voters, was the Democratic primary for mayor. With Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake getting more than 50 percent of the vote, greater turnout likely wouldn't have changed the outcome — and there's an argument to be made that staying at home was a vote for the status quo.

More likely, the nonvoters simply didn't feel strongly enough, either way, to cast a ballot. There's a certain, shall we say, passion deficit when it comes to our current mayor, for good or ill. Yet, absent any consensus on who if not her, she quickly consolidated what it takes to win, vacuuming up all the big campaign dollars, for example, especially from developers and other big-money interests.

But here's the thing, regardless of whether you're OK with her as mayor: She won more than her own office. (Time for the usual disclaimer: She still has to win the general election in November, but the city's steep Democratic tilt all but assures that.)

Rawlings-Blake also won a couple more votes on an already fairly compliant City Council. Two candidates she supported were elected — Nick Mosby, who defeated incumbent Belinda Conaway in the 7th District on the northwest side of town, and Brandon Scott, who won the open seat in the 2nd District in the northeast. They, of course, may well prove to be independent voices on the council, but it remains disheartening that a city of this size has so few outside pathways to City Hall.

I also worry that voters are simply overwhelmed. The issues raised during the election all seem so long-term, so chronic, that the fix lies somewhere beyond a single election: The appalling number of vacant, abandoned, boarded-up or otherwise blighted properties. The lack of money to keep rec centers and other neighborhood amenities open. The highest-in-the-state property taxes. The improving, but still troubling, issues with crime and schools.

No grand string theory of how to fix all that emerged from the campaign, nor could one be expected. These, after all, are the kind of big-ticket items that require daily investment, not just once every four years.

Which of course, makes Tuesday's turnout even more troubling. If voters couldn't even get their act together for a single day, what will it take to rouse them in the coming years?

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