Md. voter rolls fail to make the grade

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Larry McQueen has not voted in years, and he is not the least bit proud of it.

"I believe in voting. If you don't vote, how can you get your point of view across?" he asks. "I plan to re-register as soon as I get a permanent address."

McQueen, 34, was removed from the city's voter rolls earlier this year because he had not cast a ballot in five consecutive years. He says his voting record slipped as he bounced back and forth between homes in Baltimore County and the city.

McQueen is part of a problem evident in Maryland and across the nation: A dwindling percentage of those eligible to vote are bothering to register and cast their ballots.

In Maryland, the percentage of registered voters going to the polls during the past three Maryland gubernatorial primaries has steadily decreased, leaving elections officials, politicians and pundits scrambling for ways to reverse the trend.

"You can't have this continuous erosion without it eventually affecting the legitimacy of the government that is elected," says Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College who closely follows Maryland politics.

Fewer than one-third of Maryland's 2.1 million registered voters cast ballots in last month's primary. Additionally, an estimated one-third of the state's voting-age population is unregistered. As a result, only 22 percent of Maryland's potential electorate participated in choosing the candidates who will face off in the Nov. 6 general election for the state's highest offices.

"For one, people don't vote when there is not really a lot of competition," says John T. Willis, a state Democratic Party activist, professor and author.

During the September primary, for instance, there was little action at the top of the ticket in overwhelmingly Democratic Maryland.

Incumbent Gov. William Donald Schaefer was opposed by underfinanced political neophyte Fred Griiser. Further depressing turnout, was the absence of any closely contested statewide races.

The poor turnout even carried over into areas with hot local races.

In Baltimore County's 10th Legislative District, for example, abortion was the issue as Janice Piccinini upset the incumbent state senator, Francis X. Kelly, in the Democratic primary. Despite a fierce campaign, only 39.8 percent of the registered Democrats voted in the primary. Countywide, 34 percent of the Democrats turned out.

previous years, things have been somewhat different. Back in 1983, for instance, nearly 64 percent of Baltimore's Democrats voted in the racially tinged mayoral contest between attorney William H. Murphy Jr. and Schaefer. Conversely, only 30 percent of the city's registered Democrats voted in last month's lackluster primary.

"This is one of the worst votes I've seen, and I've been here 24 years," says Barbara E. Jackson, administrator of the city election board.

In addition to not voting, fewer people are registering to vote. The number of registered voters dropped by 33,000 voters in Maryland between 1986 and 1990. And part of the reason is that politicians -- traditionally major forces in voter registration -- find it more effective to target regular voters than to add new ones to the rolls.

"Campaigns are catering more to the established electorate," says Smith. "Because of the refinement of such things as direct mail and market segmentation, campaigns are just hunting where they see the ducks."

The problem of low voter turnout is national. During the 1988 presidential election, only 50 percent of the nation's voting-age population went to the polls. In Maryland, 49.1 percent of those 18 years old and over voted that year.

While it was just off the national average, Maryland placed in the bottom third of the states when it came to voter turnout in 1988. That continued a tradition that goes back to 1920.

"Maryland, as a general proposition, ranks down in the bottom third of states in voter participation; the state is down there with South Carolina and Mississippi," Willis says. "Certainly, the rates in Maryland are low enough that we ought to be concerned."

The reasons for that are complex. Maryland is "one of the good guys" in terms of ease of voter registration, Smith says. People can register by mail, and forms are widely available in libraries, motor vehicle offices and other public buildings. In addition, many public interest and civil rights groups have forms available as do local election boards.

Maryland also has a tradition of closing voter registration a month prior to general elections and primaries. Elections officials say the registration cut-off is needed to protect against voter fraud and to allow local election boards to process the new applicants.

"In past years, we have had organizations around the state turn in as many as 50,000 forms on the final day," says Gene M. Raynor, administrator for the State Administrative Board of Elections Laws. "We need time to get all of these people on the books."

But some experts think the 30-day rule is an anachronism that depresses voter participation. "It has to hurt," Willis says. "The media pumps up some issues just before the election, and people who become interested as a result of that can't participate because they are not registered."

A more commonly cited culprit in Maryland, however, is the practice of drawing potential court jurors from the pool of registered voters.

JURY DUTY IS FACTOR

"The main reason people don't register to vote is because they don't want to serve on jury duty," Raynor says. "I am seriously pondering some sort of legislation that would say 'if a person registers and votes he can exempt himself from jury duty.' "

Another factor is the transitory nature of Maryland. The state has a higher-than-usual share of government workers and military personnel moving in and out. And people establishing new homes are less likely to be good voters than people who have deep community roots, experts say.

"You look across the country, and the states most likely to have the highest turnouts are usually, small, isolated and have a home-grown stable population," says Richard Smolka, an American University professor who has studied voting trends nationally.

Even where states remove registration barriers, good voting is not sure to follow, he points out.

Two of the nation's best voting states, Minnesota and Wisconsin, allow Election Day registration. But voting in those states is declining. Also, Maryland officials frown on same-day registration because of the potential for fraud.

Other states that have attempted to remove voting barriers have not always been rewarded with higher turnouts.

In California, mail ballots are made available to anyone, and 14 percent of the state's voters cast their ballots by mail in 1988. Nonetheless, turnout was only 47 percent of the voting age population in 1988.

"What you do with these innovations is have people who would vote anyway taking advantage of them," Smolka says.

The only proven means to increase voter participation, he says, is to have races good enough to motivate people to come to the polls.

Says Smolka: "To vote in strong numbers, people need to perceive a viable choice."

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