House committee is looking for ways to increase voter registration and turnout

September 11, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- People don't vote because they are afraid that if they register they will be called to jury duty.

Or, they feel they are too old or frail to get to the polls.

Or, their names are no longer on voter-registration records because they have not voted for five years or more.

Or, they have just moved to the state, or do not know where to go to register.

Or, they simply do not care.

These and other reasons were given to a House of Delegates' committee that spent yesterday afternoon trying to determine why Marylanders do not vote in greater numbers and what can be done about it.

Although most of the testimony dealt with declines in voter turnout in national and statewide elections, the discussion came as Baltimore voters were being urged to vote tomorrow for a mayor, president of the City Council, city comptroller and members of the City Council in a primary contest for which a low turnout has been predicted.

Nathan Landow, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, offered the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee a laundry list of ideas to make voter registration easier in Maryland, suggesting that once citizens are registered, they are more likely to vote. But he, along with other witnesses yesterday, concluded that barriers to voter registration are not the main reason citizens do not vote.

"The hard truth is that citizens all over the country have lost faith in government and politicians," he said, adding that many believe political institutions are remote and controlled by special interest groups. "Many people just don't give a damn anymore. That's what has to change."

He and others complained that the news media in general and television in particular have trivialized political campaigns, turning them into horse races or personality contests that ignore more substantive issues.

Robert Duckworth, federal policy spokesman for the Maryland Republican Party, said public officials should concentrate their efforts on young people in an effort to eliminate cynicism about politics.

"At this time, I'd say many of our young people don't understand the stake they have in democracy," he said.

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at the American University in Washington, said Maryland could increase its voter turn out by an estimated 5 percent through two actions:

* Permitting voter registration on the same day as the election, a practice already in place in a few other states.

* Eliminating the practice of purging voter-registration rolls of the names of citizens who have not voted in the past five years. He said eligible voters should not be penalized for exercising their right not to participate in the electoral process.

Mr. Lichtman said one effect of purging voter rolls is that those who do not vote are often people with lower incomes or members of minorities. Reducing their numbers, he said, tends to leave the political system in the control of the same middle- and upper-income citizens who control the economy.

Several of the witnesses, including Mr. Landow and Virginia DeSimone of theWashington office of the League of Women Voters, urged passage at the state and federal levels of "motor voter" laws that would permit voters to become registered when they get their motor vehicle licenses. That idea drew support from several legislators who said the most often-heard complaint from non-voters was that voting lists were used to pick jurors, a job they did not want.

The Democratic Party chief suggested registering citizens to vote when they sign up for welfare or unemployment benefits and permitting anyone over 60 to vote by absentee ballot.

But neither Mr. Landow nor Mr. Duckworth would commit their respective party organizations to the idea of same-day registration. Each said he first would want to study how such a system has worked in other states.

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