Voter Registration No Longer Key Black Strategy

August 18, 1991|By MARTIN EVANS

It has been one of the axioms of 20th century black politics. Blacks, historically locked out of political offices by tradition or unfair election laws, could be counted on to register as many voters as they could.

In 1960, convinced that John F. Kennedy would champion civil rights, leaders with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored chartered buses to ferry unregistered voters to the election board in downtown Baltimore. Ten years later, when Parren J. Mitchell campaigned to become Maryland's first black mayor, blacks stood in lines that stretched out of the election offices and down the block for the chance to register.

But not this year, not in Baltimore.

None of the candidates running for top city offices has done much in the way of voter registration, according to elections officials.

And political observers say perhaps no one should be surprised.

"The purpose of political activity is to win elections, it's not to get people to participate," said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Political leaders, black or white, Democrat or Republican, have pushed voter registration only when it favored their candidate, said Mr. Bositis, who studies political participation at the Joint Center.

Many blacks have come to accept voter registration as an article of faith only because blacks have traditionally been political outsiders, he said. But with blacks already serving as mayor, state's attorney, judges and city council members, there is not the same feeling of disenfranchisement that motivated the massive voter registration drives that took place as recently as 1983.

Mr. Bositis said that with the increasing socio-economic stratification within the black community, voter registration might harmful to a black candidate whose strength was with middle-class voters.

Some candidates, such as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke or Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, appear to run more strongly among middle class blacks than they do among lower income blacks, who are the traditional targets of voter registration drives by virtue of the fact that they are less likely to register on their own.

"Sharon Pratt Dixon did best in the more middle class areas of the city," Mr. Bositis said of Ms. Dixon's successful campaign in Washington last year. "I think Kurt Schmoke is extremely educated, articulate, and presents himself well, but the increasing differentiation in the black community" make it less in his interest to do voter registration.

Under such a scenario, it would seem likely that former mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns would have been more interested in doing voter registration as part of his campaign to reclaim the office he lost to Mr. Schmoke in 1987.

zTC In fact, Mr. Burns has been a little more visible in encouraging registration than Mr. Schmoke has. He ran about three dozen televised appeals for registration in the week before the Aug. 12 registration deadline.

But his campaign acknowledges that workers have registered relatively few new voters. Schmoke campaign aides also said they have registered few voters.

Mr. Schmoke, the first black elected mayor in Baltimore historybegan his political career in 1982 when tens of thousands of new voters helped him become state's attorney by defeating a white incumbent. Concerted efforts by black ministers, business leaders and civic organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, preached voter registration as an act of racial pride.

A year later, attorney William H. Murphy Jr. again focused a massive voter registration effort in the black community, trying unsuccessfully to parlay a large black turnout into victory over then-mayor William Donald Schaefer. His effort pushed the voter registration rolls to 420,000.

"Baltimore has always been at the forefront of voter registration," Gene M. Raynor, administrator of the state Board of Election Laws, said this week. "We have a vigorous network of organizations and an outstanding elections staff."

Since early 1984, however, the numbers have gone down.

In the last mayoral election in 1987, the registration rolls dropped to about 392,000. And although final registration figures will not be available from the Baltimore City Board of Elections Supervisors until tomorrow afternoon, there were about 392,000 voters on the rolls as of Aug. 3, an 18 percent drop in only four years.

This year, with two blacks -- Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Burns -- staging the most visible campaigns for mayor, race pride or a determination to undo a historic disenfranchisement are no longer motivating forces that would build momentum for voter registration. "There are no burning issues that would make people feel a single candidate will make a difference," said Councilwoman Vera P. Hall.

Martin Evans is a reporter for The Sun.

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