Sheila Jupiter doesn't know why she should bother to vote.
The "little people" -- those who lack wealth and power -- don't stand a chance of influencing the political process, said Jupiter, 33, a financial services representative from West Baltimore. The way she sees it, politicians don't look out for common folks' interests once they get elected.
"The laws are there. [Politicians] set them up, they vote them in, and the people don't have much say," she declared.
Jupiter's views mirror those expressed in a recent study that says Americans feel alienated from the political process because they believe it caters to money and special interests.
The report by the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research group based in Ohio, says people who do not participate in elections are angry at politicians, powerful lobbyists and the media. Previously, most political analysts blamed apathy for declining voter interest.
While attitudes are difficult to measure, there is little doubt that the most common indicator of voter interest -- registration -- is on the decline in Maryland.
Last year, only 60 percent of Marylanders aged 18 and older were registered to vote, down three to four percentage points from the previous gubernatorial election year of 1986 and the lowest percentage for any non-presidential election year in the last two decades.
Nationally, 64.9 percent of eligible voters were registered in 1990, according to Election Administration Reports, a publication for election supervisors. However, direct comparisons are difficult to make because states vary in how aggressively they weed out voters who have moved, died or no longer qualify for other reasons.
Voting registration rates vary among Maryland's metropolitan jurisdictions. At the low end, only 51.5 percent of Prince George's County's voting age residents were registered in 1990, compared with a high of 68.2 percent in affluent Howard County.
Other counties fell somewhere in between. In Anne Arundel, 56.2 percent were registered, while Carroll and Harford boasted rates slightly over 60 percent. Baltimore County had a 64.9 percent registration rate, while Montgomery County had a 63.2 percent rate.
Unlike the counties, Baltimore City did not have a local election last year to boost registration. Still, it tallied a 58.2 percent registration rate by Dec. 31. That rate appears likely to increase as more residents register for the mayoral election this fall.
In June alone, almost 1,500 people signed up, a number that is "good, but not great," said Barbara E. Jackson, administrator of the city elections board.
While some people shun the voting booth out of anger with the political process, others may not register out of ignorance of their own potential political power, one sociologist says.
"People don't know how to use the political system to their advantage," said Herbert H. Lindsey, an adjunct faculty member at Catonsville Community College who has studied voter registration in Maryland. "Political power can be translated to other forms of power, but people don't realize that."
Indeed, some people clearly do not believe their vote can make a difference in an election or in their community.
Patricia Anne Carter, 34, a cashier who lives in Baltimore, says she has never voted. "I feel like my vote would not matter," she explained. Carter said she is concerned about Baltimore's drug problem, but she does not believe politicians can solve it.
Getting people registered for the first time does not guarantee they will stay registered. A state law requires election boards to purge registration lists of people who have not voted at least once in five years.
The purpose of the purge "is to keep the rolls clean of people who aren't voting," said Marvin L. Meyn, deputy administrator of the Maryland State Administrative Board of Election Laws.
But two voters purged from the rolls in 1990 filed suit in federal court last year to overturn the practice, saying they wanted to be recorded as not voting because of their discontent with the candidates. They said denying them that opportunity infringed on their right to freedom of speech. U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman ruled against the two, declaring that Maryland's purge law is constitutional. His decision was upheld by a three-judge appeals panel in March.
But the state should be able to maintain accurate information on voters' residences -- such as through address-verification mailings -- without "penalizing" people for not voting, Lindsey argues.
State elections officials agree. They say they would like the law changed to allow them to keep on their rolls people who have not voted in five years as long as they haven't moved, Meyn said.
Besides purging a voter from the rolls for failing to vote, officials may cancel a voter's registration if he dies, is convicted of a felony or moves out of the jurisdiction in which he is registered.
Unfortunately, officials are canceling more registrations than they are taking in over time, Meyn said.
In fact, the actual number of registered voters declined slightly .. between 1986 and 1990, although Maryland's population increased.
The number of names purged from registration lists for failing to vote peaks six years after a presidential election, according to registration data. In 1990, for example, the state canceled the registrations of about 206,000 non-voters, many of whom presumably registered for the 1984 presidential election but failed to vote in later contests.
Similarly, officials removed a large numbers of non-voters from registration lists in 1982, six years after the 1976 presidential race, and again in 1986, six years after the 1980 presidential contest.
Many eligible voters don't register because they fear jury duty, said Gene M. Raynor, state elections board administrator. To combat that problem, some officials have advocated the use of motor vehicle records, rather than voter registration rolls, for selecting potential jurors.
Baltimore residents may feel more sensitive to the prospect of jury duty, believing they are likely to be called if they register to vote, said Jackson, the city elections administrator. Jurors receive a meager compensation of $10 a day.
Some do not vote out of fear that government officials will find out how they cast their ballot, she added.
"I've had people tell me they could lose their Medicaid if they voted the wrong way," she said. "No way can anyone find out how anyone else voted."
Registration is expected to pick up substantially during the next 16 months, as Marylanders become interested in the 1992 presidential campaign and a statewide abortion referendum.
In fact, the state elections board is already fielding large requests for registration materials from special interest groups, Meyn said.
The emotionally charged abortion issue is likely to bring in thousands of new registrants, as groups on both sides of the issue scurry to register like-minded residents.
Voters will be asked to approve or reject a new state law assuring that abortions in Maryland remain legal and widely available.
Meanwhile the state will launch a pilot project in Anne Arundel County schools to promote voting in the 1992 general election, Raynor said. Middle-school students will be encouraged to go to the polls with their parents and cast their own votes in a separate, mock election.
A similar program in Ohio increased voter participation, largely because children encouraged their parents to take them to "vote," Raynor said.
"I think parents like to experience these kind of things with their children," he said.
How you can register to vote
For Baltimoreans wishing to vote in the Sept. 12 primary, the deadline for registering is Aug. 12 at 9 p.m.
Applications are available at Enoch Pratt Free Library branches, the Motor Vehicle Administration's office at Mondawmin Mall, state social services offices, mayor's stations and the state office buildings at 301 W. Preston St. and 1100 N. Eutaw St.
Applications can also be obtained by calling the city Board of Elections at 396-5580 or by walking into the board's office at 417 E. Fayette St., Room 129.
People already registered in the city but who have moved can change addresses by filling out the backs of their voter cards and sending them to the board. Voters with address changes can simply send in a note with their new addresses.