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City's voter turnout is lackluster at 28%

The Baltimore Sun

Election judge John Lowenson stepped outside Hampstead Hill Elementary for his umpteenth smoke break around lunchtime yesterday, puffing under an overhang as a light rain started up again.

Inside, his absence wasn't exactly missed.

"We're not going to break 100 [voters] by 1 o'clock," he said with a grimace. "This is the slowest I've ever seen it."

Though state officials had been predicting a paltry 30 percent of Baltimore's 331,987 registered voters would cast ballots in yesterday's citywide primary, late in the day it seemed hitting even that would be a stretch.

City election officials estimated that 82,921 ballots were cast at polling places yesterday, representing about 28 percent of registered Republicans and Democrats.

"It's appalling that they don't vote. When you see people who struggled to get us to the point where we could exercise our right to vote, it's hard to understand," said Armstead B.C. Jones, the city elections director.

He said that when voters registered as independents or third-party members - who were ineligible to vote in yesterday's primary - are included, 24.84 percent of all voters turned out.

That would be among the lowest turnouts in recent history, he said. The lowest he has found in his agency's records was 27.1 percent in 1991, a mark that might be exceeded this year once absentee and provisional ballots are counted.

"The message has really got to come from the candidates. Anytime voter registration is down, it tells you that the candidates have no energy to motivate," Jones said.

Some blamed the weather. Others blamed a lackluster slate of candidates. Others simply shrugged off the question - voters weren't voting, that's all they knew.

Lowenson's wife, Lillian, another longtime poll worker, sipped a Pepsi, hoping the caffeine would keep her alert if a rush of voters wouldn't. "We're almost dead," she said, describing how only three people were waiting for them to open at 7 a.m. - when it's usually much busier with people trying to vote on their way to work.

"Maybe they're just discouraged because of the way the city is with all the crime."

Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said it's the candidates' fault that people weren't moved to come out and support them.

"They didn't say anything that was really compelling. I think that's what it comes down to," he said. "After listening to them myself, I felt myself wondering, 'What did they just say?'"

Crenson also thought it was a mistake to frame the debate around the daunting and depressing issue of Baltimore's relentless homicide problem.

"That was not a way to get out voters. I think somebody needed to present a positive prospect for Baltimore, a convincing one," he said.

"In the end, many voters probably don't believe a mayor or a City Council president can do very much about the problem."

But Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, calls the lame turnout par for a primary without a national contest.

Americans, he said, are just not interested in the political process.

"They have other things to do. It's inconvenient. People are working, they have other lives, it's not easy - particularly if an election doesn't seem to have a direct effect on them," Pastor said. "They might not even know there was a primary."

With a full-time job at Giant Food's Jessup warehouse, Danny Parsons, 20, said even though she's registered to vote, she hadn't had time to pay attention to the election - she basically forgot about it. Even so, Parsons, who lives in West Baltimore, said it seemed to her that the candidates were ignoring the needier corners of the city.

Her friend Brittnie Woods, 19, said that on top of her Wal-Mart job and nursing courses, she didn't have time either.

"Nobody reads books, nobody follows the news," said Woods, who lives in Cherry Hill. "Everybody just listens to music."

Outside Lexington Market at closing time, Kweisi Sutton, 28, said he found no reason to vote because none of the candidates was listening to voters.

"Instead of drug enforcement, start helping people," he said. "The government is going to do what they want anyway."

Around lunchtime at Commodore John Rodgers school in Butchers Hill, a campaign worker for Jim Kraft was highlighting a textbook. Some young people working for Mitchell were hanging from a tree branch.

Minute after minute after minute, no voters appeared.

About the same time at Northern High School, three campaign volunteers leapt to their feet as one voter approached, trying to unload literature. Inside, the hallway was empty, and one election official appeared to be dozing - or perhaps just meditating. Other election officials profoundly thanked a voter for showing up.

With apparently too few voters to overwhelm the system, polling places, stymied in recent years by technology glitches and no-show judges, reported an easy-breezy day.

"We're in much better shape than we were last year," Chief Democratic Judge Reed Hutner said, at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in the 2500 block of E. Northern Parkway. "What we need now are some more voters."

For weeks, when Elijah Street wasn't talking about football, he has been talking about the mayor and City Council races, urging his friends, family and neighbors to vote.

"I said you need to vote, especially the black vote 'cause we came a long way to vote," he said. "Now that you have a chance, why don't you take advantage?"

He said he cast his ballot for Sheila Dixon, "because I think she's doing a marvelous job."

"She came up through the ranks," he said, adding that he thinks she might be able to turn around the soaring homicide rate. "I think she can deal with it."

Karen Watson, a Canton teacher, pinned the low turnout on candidates who didn't give people a desire to get out and vote.

"I suspect people don't see someone they think is going to pull us through," she said. "They're not seeing someone who's ignited them with solutions for the city.

"People care passionately about their community but they don't know what the solutions are now."

That said, she wants to give Dixon a chance. She thinks Dixon along with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as council president - both endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley - will together offer a "synergy" to provoke change.

"The alternatives," Watson said, "didn't tell me anything that was significantly different."

Todd Nystul rode his bicycle in the rain to vote at Hampden Elementary School.

The biologist said he was pulling for Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. for mayor, largely because he liked the city councilman's responses during recent debates.

"He seemed to have a clear idea of what to do about the problems that face the city," Nystul said.

At one point yesterday morning, there were more candidates than voters at the Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School on Eutaw Place.

At Harlem Park Elementary School on the city's west side, where 205 people had voted by noon, Victoria Robinson, an attorney from Lafayette Square, said she cast her vote for socialist mayoral candidate A. Robert Kaufman.

"I threw my vote away for A. Robert Kaufman," Robinson said. "I just could not hit Dixon or Mitchell. I could not bring myself to vote for either of them."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com lynn.anderson@baltsun.com laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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