City's Shrinking Voter Rolls

August 14, 1991

This is the poster-and-lawn-sign season of Baltimore City politics. Small fortunes are being spent by candidates on signs that are weatherproofed and glow in the dark. If some huckster came up with a sign that sang, there would be a line of eager office-seekers to buy it.

Yet signs do not vote, people do.

This truth, sadly, seems to have been forgotten by many of the candidates running for election in the city's Sept. 12 primary. While they have been tooting their own horns and knocking door-to-door, few have taken the trouble to register voting-age residents who are not on the rolls.

There are exceptions: Former Mayor Clarence "Du" Burns, though strapped for funds, devoted his television ads to asking citizens to register. Pamela Carter has emphasized voter registration to the degree that her own candidacy for a Second District council seat has taken a back seat. She ended up registering about 1,000 voters. Similarly, some Republican candidates have concentrated on voter sign-ups. Our hats are off to them.

Registration for the primary closed Monday. Although final figures will not be available for several days, it appears that the voter lists will be down 18 percent from the 1987 municipal election, when about 392,000 voters were on the rolls. That itself was a considerable drop below the 1983 figure of 420,000.

People choose not to register for a number of reasons. Some are not interested in politics or in exercising their civic duty. Others do not want to be on the voting rolls because those lists are used to select citizens for jury duty.

Gene Raynor, the state elections administrator, thinks most of those choosing not to register want to avoid jury duty, which pays a paltry $10 a day in a city where many make more than that in an hour. There are two ways to expand the pool of potential jurors: increase the compensation to more realistic levels or use something other than voter rolls as the reservoir from which jurors are called.

Stuart Simms, the city's state's attorney, thinks a crisis is rapidly approaching because the list of potential jurors in some cases is becoming so small that the same faces appear again and again in pools. Those faces belong to people who often are displeased or downright angry to be called again. He thinks jurors should be culled from a broader register, such as those with driver's licenses.

While such a change might help the jury situation, only community education efforts can increase voter rolls. Perhaps the Sept. 12 election will be so unpredictable in its results that candidates as well as political and civic organizations again realize that registering voters is more important than all the mass mailings, signs and bumper stickers. It's time to got our priorities straight.

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