Turnout low, but not rare


What can you say about an election in which nearly two registered voters stayed home for every one who went to the polls?

One thing can be said for certain about the 34 percent turnout for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's drubbing Tuesday of political neophyte Andrey Bundley: It's par for the course, given the type of contest it was.

In city primaries over the past three decades, in which sitting mayors have not faced serious opposition, turnout has generally been between about 30 percent and 40 percent.

Though experts in voting behavior say there has been little research into voter turnout in municipal elections nationwide, they say the percentage of voters going to the polls in other cities is generally no better and maybe even a little worse than Baltimore.

In Detroit, for example, turnout in the past three city primaries was 25 percent or less; in the general election, it was 33 percent, 28 percent and 37 percent.

"In some ways, Baltimoreans can pat themselves on the back," Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said of Tuesday's turnout.

Certainly, O'Malley, seeking a second term, and his supporters, were happy with the proportion of voters who went to the polls.

"I think that's great," the mayor said the day after election. "There were a lot of people who were predicting it would be an abysmally low turnout, and for it to hit 34 or 35 percent, I think is a big accomplishment. And I think it's an affirmation of the fact that we are making progress."

Bundley, a high school principal making his first run for office, had a different take, focusing on those who didn't bother to show up. "People disengage about a process that doesn't change their lives," he said Tuesday night, shortly before conceding the election.

Be that as it may, the turnout Tuesday surpassed the approximately 30 percent of voters who turned out for the city's Democratic primaries in 1975 and 1979, when William Donald Schaefer had only token opposition in seeking his second and third terms in office. And it was about the same as the turnout in 1991, when Kurt L. Schmoke easily won renomination against Clarence H. "Du" Burns, whom he had beaten four years earlier.

"The number one driving force in turnout is the competitiveness of the race - and is there a galvanizing issue," said John Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and a professor of government and public policy at the University of Baltimore. "If you have that, that's when the public starts tuning in."

Schaefer's first race for mayor in 1971, a four-way contest with no incumbent; Schmoke's first victory over Burns, a sitting mayor but not an elected one, in 1987; and O'Malley's win four years ago drew turnout percentages in mid 30s and mid 40s.

The only city primaries in the past 32 years to draw large numbers of voters had racial undertones. In 1983, about 60 percent of voters turned out when lawyer William H. Murphy Jr. tried unsuccessfully to become the city's first black mayor by unseating the popular Schaefer. In 1995, Schmoke, the city's first elected black mayor, appealed to racial pride in beating City Council President Mary Pat Clarke; though larger number of voters turned out than in recent years, the final turnout was only in the mid-40s because of higher registration.

That, too, is not unusual. In Philadelphia, for example, nearly 70 percent of Democrats voted in the 1983 mayoral primary as Wilson Goode beat hard-nosed Frank Rizzo on his way to becoming the city's first black mayor.

"People damn well thought that their vote made a difference on both sides," said Ed Schwartz, head of Philadelphia's Institute for the Study of Civic Values. "If people feel that, they'll vote."

Three years ago, the Institute began a "Non-Voters Campaign" to boost turnout among city voters, which was 54 percent in the 2000 presidential election and 45 percent in the competitive 1999 mayoral general election. It is built around having nonpartisan volunteers encouraging participation by going door to door, as old precinct workers used to canvas for parties and candidates.

If lines at polling places in Baltimore seem shorter than they did 20 and 30 years ago, it's not necessarily because turnout is less but rather that voter registration has shrunk along with the city's population.

And overall, primary turnout totals are skewed downward by the absence of competitive Republican races, giving most Republicans little reason to go to the polls.

Tuesday's election, for example, featured no contested Republican races for citywide office and only five of 14 council races with more than one GOP candidate. Little wonder that less than 10 percent of the city's 28,327 registered Republicans bothered to vote. Take the Republicans out of the equation and turnout among the city's 241,156 registered Democrats rises to 37 percent. Add in absentee ballots and the count could grow another point or so.

That may be one reason city voter turnout is higher in gubernatorial general elections, 53 percent last year and 56 percent in 1998. And it is higher still in presidential elections - ranging between 55 percent and 69 percent in the five races between 1984 and 2000.

Other factors for higher turnouts in presidential than city elections nationwide are greater media "buzz" and the fact that city elections are "often perceived to be less important," according to Daniel Shea, a political scientist and Director of the Center for Political Participation at Pennsylvania's Allegheny College. "It's ironic, given what residents of cities confront in terms of local regulations and taxes," he said.

Indeed, Allison Lemons, a 19-year-old college student from Northeast Baltimore, said she didn't vote because she really didn't care about the city elections but said, "If it was a presidential election, I'd vote."

Others indicated they were too turned off to turn out.

"I haven't voted since Schmoke was in office - that was the biggest disappointment I had," said James West Jr., 53, a brick mason who has watched his eastside street deteriorate over the years. He points to a barren tree pit in the sidewalk. "Five years ago, they said they'd give us a tree there," he said. "We don't have a tree yet."

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