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As Long as We Remember...

March 13, 2003

Why Didn't You Vote?

Ronald W. Wolf

Finally, the Maryland State Board of Elections has gotten data on last Novemberís election so political junkies can gnaw on it. Turns out Frederick County wasn't all that interested in going to the polls. How come?

The best the Democratic Party in Frederick County could do was muster 57 percent of the vote. Democratic voters in Frederick County, when compared with all 24 voting jurisdictions in the state (23 counties plus Baltimore City), ranked 19th.

The Republican Party had a higher percentage, 62, but did even worse when compared with other Republicans -- 21st out of 24 voting jurisdictions. The Republican Party had a national get-out-the-vote effort that in general worked reasonably well. In Maryland, there was a great prize -- the governorís mansion -- to capture. Yet Republican turnout in Frederick was comparatively low.

Voter turnout around the state was highly variable from county to county but surprisingly consistent within a county. Where there was a high Republican turnout, there was high Democratic and high independent turnout. The reverse is true as well; all of Western Maryland, by the way, excluding Carroll County, ranked low in percentage of voter turnout.

Kent County, just for the record, had the highest percentage of combined turnout, the highest Republican, highest Democratic, and highest independent voter turnout. The bad news for civic participation is that very few voters live in Kent County. There are more voters registered as independent in Frederick County than total registered voters of all affiliations in Kent County.

Independent voters all around the state voted at lower rates than either Democrats or Republicans in every jurisdiction. In Frederick County, turnout of independent voters was 40 percent. Independent voters may think they have sent a message to the big two by leaving the major parties, and the number of non-affiliated voters is increasing nationally. But all independents accomplish is to remove themselves from the process. They canít vote for partisan issues in primary elections, and they vote at lower rates in the general election. The message that independent voters sent in the last election is that they are a less important block of voters in both number and action.

What makes for effective voter turnout? Registered voters were swamped by literature in the mail and taped phone messages. Everyone from Barbara Mikulski to George W. Bush left messages on answering machines for voters in Frederick County. Itís reasonable to assume that every household in Frederick County with a registered voter received between 10 and 20 contacts by mail or phone. Still, voter turnout was low.

Why people donít vote has been hashed and rehashed. There is too much negative campaigning some say. Voters are turned off by the big money associated with elections say others.

Curtis Gans, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate and an expert on voter matters, pointed out recently in a talk to the United Democrats of Frederick County that as voter participation continues to decline, and itís been doing that for several decades, it provides voters with extreme views who do vote a greater opportunity to influence the outcome of elections. The election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota about five years ago is an example.

But why was voter turnout high in Carroll or Kent Counties? Is it possible that in less populous counties with fewer candidates to pester voters that a reduced number of contacts with voters is more helpful than a high number in getting people to vote. If so, whatís the cutoff? Is three contacts good but four too many?

Turns out that other less populous counties in Maryland had turnout in the middle (Somerset and Worcester) or low (Allegheny and Wicomico) and high-population areas (Montgomery, high turnout; Prince Georgeís, low turnout) varied too, so population or number of candidates alone is not the answer. The answer is that there are many answers for each voting jurisdiction, and each voting district requires great scrutiny and knowledge of local attitudes.

Would higher turnout change the outcome of elections? Maybe not. There is a point when percentage of voters could get too low and extreme factions control elections. But for the most part we're not there yet. It's just that the people who are elected have significant influence on the community.

Considering that, the number of people who are registered to vote but don't is astonishing. And that doesn't even mention those that aren't registered to vote.

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