A time for change: an examination of Baltimore City’s record low voter turnout

by Ashley Ward

As you drive through the streets of Baltimore City, many areas still bare the campaign efforts of the six mayoral candidates. Posters plastered on walls, fliers in store front windows and stickers on bumpers. The abundance of the campaign fanfare throughout the city turned out to be a rouge when the September 13th primary produced the lowest voter turnout in Baltimore’s history. After the  polls closed, 23% of registered voters had participated, equaling only 12% of the city’s population (rounded from the Unofficial Polling Place Turnout). Even more disappointing was the turnout for the November 8th general election, which produced an even lower turnout than the primaries—reportedly, only 10-12% of registered voters showed. Until September, the lowest turnout Baltimore had seen for a primary was 27% in 1991.

Maryland is not the only state dealing with disappointingly low voter turnout. Kentucky’s November 8th gubernatorial race had only a 29% turnout, and New Jersey saw their lowest turnout in history with 26%. So what is causing such low voter turnout and should there be concern with a Presidential election year approaching? Many scholars and political analysts have their own theories. One of the most popular reasons is voter apathy. The 2010 census reported that the highest population within the 20-24 years and 25-29 years age group. The Unofficial Polling Place Turnout reported that both ages were the least likely to vote, especially the males within the age group. When asked why he did not vote, 21 year old Kevin Clark said, “It was all the same old stuff.”  Many younger citizens do not understand the importance of voting.

James Zhe of The John Hopkins News-Letter has a more cynical observation of the state of mind of Baltimore’s voters that lends itself to voter dissolution with politics in general:

Baltimore City is often called the heroin capital of America. With only a 68.4 percent high school graduation rate, the city’s public education system is also strained. Burdened by a 6.9 percent reported unemployment rate as of January 2007, the economy’s performance is at best mediocre. The city’s income per capita as of 2005 was $31,607, far behind the $41,972 average of the state of Maryland. After trekking through these truths, it’s no surprise that most citizens would simply forfeit their voting rights. After all, what’s the use of voting if little progress has been made to improve the lives of ordinary citizens in the city?

Another reason given for the poor voter turnout is the imbalance of political parties and voters’ assumptions about election outcomes. In Baltimore, Democrats hold the electorate in a 9-to-1 ratio to Republicans. Other parties hold 12% of the electorate. Many registered voters did not bother to vote because of they believed that, even with ample competition, the incumbents would win. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, won 84% of the votes cast on November 8th. The last Republican mayor was Theodore McKeldin, who served a term from 1963-1967. Caryn Bell, 25 years old, stated that she did not vote in the primary because she was “pretty sure that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would win.”

There are as many possible solutions to the voting turnout problem as there are opinions that explain the phenomenon itself. To combat political party disparities, some have suggested following a instant-runoff voting process. In this system, general election ballots do not limit parties to one representative and voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a clear majority of first-place votes, the lower-ranked candidates’ votes are redistributed based on voters’ second choices, and so on, until someone has a majority. This process would make the election more meaningful and hopefully produce more voters, as the outcome would not be as predictable.

With respect to voter apathy, a long-term solution is to involve children in the electoral process. Organizations like Kids Voting USA provide innovative activities and mock elections for school-age children to pique their interest in their duty as citizens (once they of age). In the past, at Maryland polls, children were allowed to participate in mock elections while their parents voted in the actual election. Encouraging children will not, however, encourage adults who are now of voting age.

Another suggestion is to change the time of elections. Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, believes that turnout is reduced because Baltimore elections occur on different dates than state and federal elections. If the city election coincided with the gubernatorial or presidential cycle, it is believed that it would be more meaningful, with a higher attendance.

Regardless of the reason for or solution to Baltimore City’s low voter turnout, one thing that can be agreed upon is that it is a travesty for our country’s democratic process. Our ability to vote is the cornerstone of our government and the fact that so many citizens are not taking advantage of it is extremely disappointing. The politicians that are voted into office determine Baltimore citizens’ very livelihood; it would behoove Baltimoreans to choose them wisely.

Ashley Ward is a third-year law student at William and Mary.

permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2011/12/14/md-voter-turnout

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