Many issues, but few voters

November 01, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Voters in Maryland on Tuesday face an intriguing choice between two evenly matched, yet starkly different, candidates for governor, an office that gives its occupant tremendous power to set policy on abortion, gun control, environmental regulation and education funding.

But if past elections are a guide, between 40 and 50 percent of the state's registered voters couldn't care less.

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In Washington County, voters will get a chance to pass judgment on three incumbent County Commissioners who preside over a mushrooming water and sewer debt, and elect people to fill two newly created school board positions.

But in past years, about two-fifths of the voters have stayed home on Election Day.

"They used to turn out more," said Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel.

Kaetzel speculated that the proliferation of entertainment outlets has made voting less appealing.

"It used to be elections were so big, so exciting," she said. "Now it seems like there is so much to do."


Based on the number of people who have requested absentee ballots, Kaetzel predicted turnout on Tuesday will be much lower than it was four years ago.

In 1994, 1,437 people voted by absentee ballot. About the same number of voters - 1,486 people - have asked for absentee ballots this year, even though there are about 15,000 more registered voters.

"That's why I think voter turnout will be very bad," Kaetzel said.

The numbers may be somewhat misleading, however. Voters who failed to vote in successive elections used to be purged from the registration rolls. The so-called motor voter law that took effect in 1995 ended that practice.

As a result, Kaetzel said the election board is carrying a lot of "dead wood," voters who previously would not have counted toward turnout.

In the 1996 election, the first under the new system, turnout in Washington County dropped to 69.9 percent, compared with 84.4 percent in 1992.

Still, even accounting for changes in the way turnout is calculated, voter participation has been on a steady decline over the last 35 years.

The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate tracks voter participation by determining the turnout percentage of all Americans who are old enough to vote.

That rate peaked in 1966, when 48.61 percent of eligible voters throughout the country cast ballots.

In 1994, that same figure was 38.79 percent.

The trends are the same, to varying degrees, in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Only 30.30 percent of the voting-age population in West Virginia showed up to vote in 1994, down from a high of 58.33 percent in 1962.

In Pennsylvania, 61.44 percent of the voting-age population voted in 1962, compared with 38.92 percent in 1994.

In Maryland, which featured one of the most competitive campaigns for governor in state history in 1994, Election Day drew 37.61 percent of the voting-age population. That was down from 42.26 percent in 1966.

Reasons debated

Democrat David P. "Kip" Koontz, who is vying for one of three Maryland House of Delegates seats in District 3, blamed media coverage of campaigns.

Koontz said he was approached by several people at a Democratic function recently.

"There were people throwing their arm around me, saying, 'We hope you run again,'" he said.

The reason, Koontz learned, was that a newspaper endorsement had failed to back Koontz. With so little coverage of the race in the news pages, they figured the outcome was a foregone conclusion, Koontz said.

"They've basically declared their own winners in the elections, so they decided there's no need to cover the election," he said.

Koontz said media coverage of national races, which often is dominated by the latest poll results, has the same effect.

People also feel they have become insignificant in the political process, some argue.

A survey conducted this year by Project Vote Smart found that 71 percent of the people believe that campaign contributors are "highly influential" in shaping a candidate's views on the issues.

Timothy D. McCown, who is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., made a similar point.

McCown, who has been waging a largely invisible campaign because of a lack of money, said modern campaigns force credible candidates to spend much of their time raising money. That requires large donations from well-heeled groups.

As a result, McCown said Democrats and Republicans end up tapping in the same donor pool, blurring the differences between the parties.

That feeling of helplessness is a big reason people don't vote, McCown said.

"I think it's probably the biggest. When I shake hands, people say, 'My vote doesn't count,'" he said. "And when they say that, they're not talking about one vote not making a difference in the outcome What they mean is, my vote has no say in what's going to happen."

Rick L. Hemphill, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, said one reason people tune out is the length of campaigns. It is very difficult to keep interest up, he said.

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