Sheila Jupiter doesn't know why she should bother to vote.
The "little people" -- those who lack wealth and power -- don't stand a chance of influencing the political process, said Jupiter, 33, a financial services representative from West Baltimore. The way she sees it, politicians don't look out for common folks' interests once they get elected.
"The laws are there. [Politicians] set them up, they vote them in, and the people don't have much say," she declared.
Jupiter's views mirror those expressed in a recent study that says Americans feel alienated from the political process because they believe it caters to money and special interests.
The report by the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research group based in Ohio, says people who do not participate in elections are angry at politicians, powerful lobbyists and the media. Previously, most political analysts blamed apathy for declining voter interest.
While attitudes are difficult to measure, there is little doubt that the most common indicator of voter interest -- registration -- is on the decline in Maryland.
Last year, only 60 percent of Marylanders aged 18 and older were registered to vote, down three to four percentage points from the previous gubernatorial election year of 1986 and the lowest percentage for any non-presidential election year in the last two decades.
Nationally, 64.9 percent of eligible voters were registered in 1990, according to Election Administration Reports, a publication for election supervisors. However, direct comparisons are difficult to make because states vary in how aggressively they weed out voters who have moved, died or no longer qualify for other reasons.
Voting registration rates vary among Maryland's metropolitan jurisdictions. At the low end, only 51.5 percent of Prince George's County's voting age residents were registered in 1990, compared with a high of 68.2 percent in affluent Howard County.
Other counties fell somewhere in between. In Anne Arundel, 56.2 percent were registered, while Carroll and Harford boasted rates slightly over 60 percent. Baltimore County had a 64.9 percent registration rate, while Montgomery County had a 63.2 percent rate.
Unlike the counties, Baltimore City did not have a local election last year to boost registration. Still, it tallied a 58.2 percent registration rate by Dec. 31. That rate appears likely to increase as more residents register for the mayoral election this fall.
In June alone, almost 1,500 people signed up, a number that is "good, but not great," said Barbara E. Jackson, administrator of the city elections board.
While some people shun the voting booth out of anger with the political process, others may not register out of ignorance of their own potential political power, one sociologist says.
"People don't know how to use the political system to their advantage," said Herbert H. Lindsey, an adjunct faculty member at Catonsville Community College who has studied voter registration in Maryland. "Political power can be translated to other forms of power, but people don't realize that."
Indeed, some people clearly do not believe their vote can make a difference in an election or in their community.
Patricia Anne Carter, 34, a cashier who lives in Baltimore, says she has never voted. "I feel like my vote would not matter," she explained. Carter said she is concerned about Baltimore's drug problem, but she does not believe politicians can solve it.
Getting people registered for the first time does not guarantee they will stay registered. A state law requires election boards to purge registration lists of people who have not voted at least once in five years.
The purpose of the purge "is to keep the rolls clean of people who aren't voting," said Marvin L. Meyn, deputy administrator of the Maryland State Administrative Board of Election Laws.
But two voters purged from the rolls in 1990 filed suit in federal court last year to overturn the practice, saying they wanted to be recorded as not voting because of their discontent with the candidates. They said denying them that opportunity infringed on their right to freedom of speech. U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman ruled against the two, declaring that Maryland's purge law is constitutional. His decision was upheld by a three-judge appeals panel in March.
But the state should be able to maintain accurate information on voters' residences -- such as through address-verification mailings -- without "penalizing" people for not voting, Lindsey argues.
State elections officials agree. They say they would like the law changed to allow them to keep on their rolls people who have not voted in five years as long as they haven't moved, Meyn said.
Besides purging a voter from the rolls for failing to vote, officials may cancel a voter's registration if he dies, is convicted of a felony or moves out of the jurisdiction in which he is registered.
Unfortunately, officials are canceling more registrations than they are taking in over time, Meyn said.