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Disillusion with City Hall has many voting by not voting

The Baltimore Sun

Howard Hamlin wouldn't cross the street to vote yesterday. Literally.

Well, he would have had to cross more than one street and round a couple of corners, but the 49-year-old Govans resident was just a short walk from his polling place yesterday when I came across him. The polls were open and there probably wouldn't have been a wait for a ballot booth, but, nope, Hamlin had no plans of voting.

"I've given up because of so many disappointments," Hamlin said. "They say one thing and do another."

I guess you could say Hamlin, a tractor-trailer driver, voted by not voting. Most of the city, in fact, voted against voting yesterday, with election officials reporting one of the lowest turnouts for a mayoral contest in years - about 28 percent, or close to 83,000 voters.

You couldn't be an American Idol with so little turnout, but you can be Baltimore mayor.

And you get what we appear to have gotten last night - the status quo, the same-old-same-old, the usual suspects still holding tight at City Hall, with Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake remaining in power.

Perhaps it was an appropriately lackluster end to a lackluster campaign season, one that for whatever reason failed to stir many voters - in their hearts, in their guts, in their imagination, in whatever place it is that you get poked and prodded and propelled into the polling place.

I've been trying to figure out why this campaign season never seemed to catch fire.

Campaigns are funny things. They exist in their own world, an echo chamber inhabited by the candidates, their supporters and the news media. Inside the bubble, everyone's abuzz about this candidate's TV ad or that one's crime plan, the latest rumor or the snittiest fit at last night's debate.

Outside the bubble, though, the rest of the city goes about its business, maybe annoyed by the robocalls or the mailers that serve as the main interface between the campaign world and the real world, but mostly tuning it out.

Not everyone turns a deaf ear, of course. Some people do attend the community forums, listen when a candidate knocks on the door, read the coverage in the newspaper or tune into the radio or TV debates. But at least at two big public events I went to - a mayoral debate at the Pratt library downtown and a community forum at Digital High School in South Baltimore - the audience was largely supporters of the various candidates on stage. If you follow The Sun's elections blog, it's much the same thing, a chat among the regulars. (Now that the election is over, what will become of Lisa and Nicole?)

Election Day is when the bubble bursts: Suddenly, it's time for those outside the bubble to vote - or not - and it can come as a surprise that they aren't as consumed with the campaign as those of us on the inside have been.

It isn't for lack of issues - people so often cite the two main ones that I've started to think of them as one word, crimeandschools. It wasn't for lack of candidates, many of whom offered plans and even, in some cases, generated personal enthusiasm.

But for the most part, there seems to be a disconnect: People know what the problems are - they've certainly been around long enough - and yet they've stopped believing the solutions are going to come from City Hall.

After all, as I've heard more than once, several of the leading candidates for mayor and City Council president have been in office as these very problems were deepening - why should we believe they're now, because of this election, suddenly going to do something about them?

Shirley Jones, 71, did vote last evening, at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, but said many of her friends and neighbors have been largely disengaged from the election this year.

"I think they've given up," said Jones, a retired day care provider.

She always votes - this year, it was for Dixon as mayor and Michael Sarbanes as council president - although she doesn't think the officeholders can heal the city on their own.

"It can't just be them. It's going to need the whole community," Jones said.

"But I think they've given up," she repeated.

Also voting at Cross Country was Rosalie Nabors, a speech pathologist. She's lived in Baltimore for most of her 68 years and remembers candidates who have generated more excitement.

"Or maybe I was more naive then," she said wryly.

She speculated that the turnout in this election was so low because "mostly, I think, the choices aren't that exciting or different."

She decided to vote for whatever change she could manage on her ballot - picking Keiffer Mitchell for mayor and Sarbanes because "he's a fresh face."

So back to my nonvoting trucker Hamlin, who is too disenchanted to vote. He lists his disappointments, from President Bush ("I think it was a personal issue to send our boys to Iraq, and for money, it had nothing to do with fighting for our country") to Gov. Martin O'Malley ("He didn't do what he promised - he said he's going to cut back on the murder rate").

So yesterday, he asked himself, how much of a difference will it make who he votes for this time around, or if he votes at all?

His conclusion: "Not a bit."

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