For the Maryland 80 percent, still time to get off the bench

Among the 80 percent of registered Republicans and Democrats who stayed away from Maryland's primary was Sally Staehle of Baltimore. She wrote me a letter to explain why she took a pass on voting this time around.

"I turned off to local politics when I saw a commercial of an empty podium at a debate, with a voice-over that said somebody didn't bother to show up for the debate, how can we trust him? I just couldn't bear to even try to figure out what that was all about. I don't even remember who the commercial was for."

You can understand Staehle's reluctance to waste mental energy on a campaign ad. But it would not have been hard to figure that one out.

What I assume Staehle saw was a TV spot slamming Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown for skipping the WBFF-TV debate a few days earlier. His challengers, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur, participated in the debate and appeared on screen, an empty lectern bearing Brown's name between them.

Gansler's camp paid for the ad. ("If Anthony Brown won't even show up in Baltimore to debate," it said, "how can we trust him to stand up for us as governor?")

While Staehle might not have liked or understood the ad, Brown's decision to skip the WBFF debate was fair game; he deserved to be knocked for it.

Staehle cited another factor — the proposal by Mizeur to legalize and tax marijuana to pay for an expansion of prekindergarten education.

"Early childhood professionals work really hard to help children learn and develop their brains and sharpen their wits," Staehle wrote. "Using drug money to fund their education just seemed so stupid that I couldn't pay any more attention."

Fair point. But while Mizeur's proposal might have been a reason to reject a particular candidate, it wasn't a reason to reject an entire election.

I understand how negative campaigning and foolish grandstanding turn people off. But that's just the reason voters need to be informed — so they can separate the baloney salesmen from the real deals.

Being a good citizen calls for discernment, the ability to judge well. It means paying attention so you can vote with some confidence that you're picking the best candidate for a particular job.

As we just saw with Tuesday's election, with its embarrassingly low voter turnout, that doesn't always happen (see results of the state's attorney primary in Baltimore).

Some people argue that it's better this way — let an informed, civic-minded minority do the voting.

I don't accept that; no one should.

And I disagree with the sentiment that foolishness and negativity in a campaign are reasons to belong to Maryland's 80 percent of nonvoters. Sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote, but you have to vote — or else you don't get to complain about the quality of your government.

I've heard over the last week from some of the biggest complainers in our state, and they're mostly Republicans. They're bitter about being outnumbered 2 to 1 by Democrats, and they cite that as a reason for not voting. One tweeted that it's futile to vote for Larry Hogan because, if elected, a Republican governor won't be able to accomplish anything with a legislature dominated by Democrats.

The nonvoting Republicans don't understand that by sitting out elections, belonging to the sedentary 80 percent, they push their party closer to irrelevancy.

What Republicans should be doing is pushing their party closer to the center and appealing to some of Maryland's 650,000 independents. Less extreme ideology and more focus on making government work, instead of tearing it down, would serve the GOP. It would serve both parties.

It might bring back voters like Sally Staehle.

"I work very hard and am a contributing citizen," she wrote. "But there was nothing for me to hold onto in our local politics. I care very deeply about all the trash in the streets I walk on, how dirty the harbor and bay are, and the endless murders that go on in our city. I am sick and tired of seeing people spit in the streets and of smelling urine at the bus stops where I transfer. And I wait too long for buses sometimes. This is a start of what I care about immediately."

Roger that. But that's exactly why we vote, especially in local elections.

All that Staehle mentions, all that quality-of-life stuff, flows back to the people who run your city, your county, your state, your country. Trash removal, road repairs, aircraft safety, police and fire response, schools and universities, fair and firm criminal justice, vigilance on the environment, public health and financial markets — you can trace all of those things back to someone in power and, ultimately, someone accountable on Election Day.

If you were part of the 80 percent this time, OK. I won't bring it up again.

But consider coming off the bench; the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4. I think this constitutes adequate notice.

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