The number of voters eligible to go to the polls in Baltimore's Sept. 12 primaries will be down substantially compared with the last two municipal elections, city elections officials said yesterday as the deadline for voter registration passed.
The drop in the number of registered voters is far sharper than the decline in the city's population as a whole over the past decade. Both elections officials and politicians say the lack of a major registration drive among the city's top candidates was a leading factor in the drop-off, as well as what has been a fairly lackluster campaign so far.
Although final registration figures from the Baltimore City Board of Elections Supervisors will not be available for several days, it appears now that voter registration will be down about 18 percent since the 1987 municipal election, when there were about 392,000 voters on the rolls. About 420,000 registered for the 1983 municipal elections.
Barbara E. Jackson, city supervisor of elections, said that even though walk-in registration at the board headquarters picked up as the 9 p.m. deadline approached, she did not believe there would be a significant increase over the 320,000 voters on the rolls the last time a count was made on Aug. 3.
Past registration drives in Baltimore have usually focused on increasing the turnout of black voters in campaigns where race was a major factor or where black candidates were challenging white incumbents. But this year, campaigns have moved away from recruiting sheer numbers and instead are focusing on making sure already registered voters know their candidates and get to the polls.
"We decided the most critical job for us was to educate the public to the many things the mayor has accomplished in his first year in office," said Larry S. Gibson, who is directing the campaign to re-elect Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "We have not been doing a lot of voter registration."
Mayoral candidate Clarence H. "Du" Burns has run televiseannouncements urging voters to register before yesterday's deadline, but Burns campaign aides concede they have not made a major effort to find and enroll unregistered voters. Mr. Schmoke's third major opponent, former Baltimore State's Attorney William A. Swisher, has likewise shown little involvement in registration efforts, elections officials said.
Some black political leaders are concerned that a low voter registration this year could hurt efforts to increase black representation on the City Council. A redistricting plan adopted in March resulted in black majorities in five of the six council districts, but some black leaders fear that the election could result in a net loss of black council members -- 7 of the 19 are black -- if there is a low turnout among black voters.
Massive registration campaigns for black voters were credited with helping such candidates as Parren J. Mitchell become Maryland's first black congressman in 1970 and Milton B. Allen become the city's first black state's attorney, also in 1970. Mr. Schmoke also benefited from registration drives in his successful 1982 campaign for state's attorney.
In past campaigns, volunteers often would man booths in shopping malls, street corners or at churches, preaching voter registration with evangelical fervor and signing up the unregistered as if saving souls.
"When I first came here, candidates were the ones who really did voter registration and would bring in boxfuls at a time," Mrs. Jackson said.