Apathy alone couldn't do it

Dan Rodricks

September 12, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

There are several theories as to why Maryland voters stayed away from the polls in droves yesterday. Today, class, we will examine this subject at length.

Theory No. 1: Apathy.

This excuse has been used ever since the sixth grade, when Cindy Goldman tried to get everyone in Miss Smith's class to take part in a Dinosaur Day. It didn't work. Cindy showed up in a Wilma Flintstone costume and her friend, Francis Moyette, brought a couple of rubber replicas of Mesozoic reptiles. Maybe -- just maybe -- Michael Cruz brought in a rubber Tyrannosaurus. But that was it. That was Dinosaur Day. Everyone else thought it was ridiculous. That's when I first heard Cindy use the word. "Apathy" has been used as an excuse for everything from the poor turnout at the Bay of Pigs to public ambivalence toward Pink Positive Day, that jerky public relations fiasco designed to humor then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer after the Colts left Baltimore. Apathy is too easy an excuse. Certainly there must have been something extraordinary -- something large and even mystical -- that kept the masses away from the Maryland primary 1990.

Theory No. 2: Jury duty.

A woman waiting for an elevator in a downtown office building yesterday afternoon was asked whether she took part in the Democratic process.

"No," she said. "I don't want jury duty."

But that's an old excuse. It's been used before. And it doesn't explain why registered voters -- and there are more than 2.1 million of them in the state of Maryland -- stayed away from the polls yesterday. There must be something more -- some very large and sinister reason voters refused to take part in the democratic process.

Theory No. 3: Bluefish.

They were biting like crazy all day. Driving over the Bay Bridge, a friend looked upon the shining flat expanse of the Chesapeake and saw the miles of churning water where the bluefish were feeding in a frenzy. There were many boats chasing them, too. So pin this on the wall of possibilities -- Primary 1990: Maryland Gone Fishin'. Still, this can account for the absence of only -- what? -- 3 percent of registered voters. There must be something huge, something the experts can't see, that served as a major turnoff for voters.

Theory 4: Lack of controversy.

Outside of the abortion issue in a handful of key elections, and the flap over Roy Dyson's military record in the 1st Congressional District, there was very little in the way of scandal, not much in the way of political hullabaloo. There were some dirty fights, but they were probably as much a turnoff for voters as they were a turn-on. The only thing that saved this primary from being a total wash was the Dyson Thing. After it became known that Roy "I Like Things Go Boom" Dyson, the congressman with the hawk rep, had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Dyson countered with a negative campaign against his Democratic opponent, Barbara Kreamer. It was unseemly. It was childish. It was beneath him, but it was all Roy had. Still, that's regional theater. There must have been something big, something very, very huge, that left most voters disinterested and maybe even disgusted.

Theory No. 5: Emissions testing.

Close down those silly emissions testing stations on Election Day and maybe we'll finally have a well-attended election. This theory claims that the political leaders of this state -- entrenched incumbents all -- serve themselves by keeping emissions testing stations open on Election Day and thereby guaranteeing a less-than-large voter turnout. An interesting theory. And yet . . . and yet, I sense that there is something even bigger, even more grandiose, at play here.

Theory No. 6: William Donald Schaefer.

Oh, Lord, he was large. He was so very, very huge. He generated many grumbles during his first four sessions with the legislature, but no one dared challenge him in a primary. And yet, the fact that he faced only token opposition didn't seem to stop the fat cats from padding his pockets. This time, tribute was rendered unto Don Donaldo to the tune of $2 million -- down, his lackeys point out, from the $3.5 million he gobbled up in campaign contributions in 1986. The various Maryland PACs gave him more than $200,000, a nice tip for services rendered in his first term. And the PACs threw plenty of dough to other candidates -- even to unopposed state senators. Add all that up -- the intimidating incumbency of Schaefer, all the special-interest money, a legislature that looks like a self-serving private club -- and a voter begins to think that a vote doesn't matter. A voter thinks about not voting. A voter doesn't vote.

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