The Right to Vote, and Nobody Cares

COMMENT

August 21, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

For those who thought that Columbia residents would clamor for the chance to have one-person, one-vote elections for selecting members of the Columbia Council, think again.

The residents of Wilde Lake Village have shown scant interest in pursuing a campaign to grant voting rights to all residents over the age of 18. Village officials can't find enough people to volunteer for the arduous task of getting at least 90 percent of Wilde Lake property owners to approve the required covenant change.

The campaign to make the change before the next election in April is being put off indefinitely.

Without the covenant change, Wilde Lake -- like seven more of Columbia's 10 villages -- will continue to allow only one vote per household or property lot owned.

Apparently, the lure of democracy -- so compelling to people once under Soviet domination -- isn't so appealing here at home.

As a proponent of one-person, one-vote, I have to confess to being somewhat surprised, at least initially, by the lack of interest shown by Wilde Lake residents.

While I always had doubts that any village would be able to get 90 percent of its residents to approve a covenant change, I thought the difficulty would come in getting the vote out, not in finding the volunteers to get the vote out.

But that only proves the depths of the apathy. The danger now is to make shallow assumptions about what is causing the apathy. It seems to me there are two reasons why Columbia voters don't seem to care much about securing normal voting rights.

The first holds the most irony: Columbia residents are so generally happy with the state of affairs in Rouse's planned city, they don't perceive a need to change.

I have argued that some of that perception is simply the consequence of looking at things through rose-colored glasses, that in fact an out-of-touch council and a lackadaisical electorate are danger signs that need to be addressed.

But, as I suspect most Columbians see it, when I walk the paths in my community or lounge alongside one of the city's lakefronts, it's difficult to understand what this election hullabaloo is all about. Let's face it: We've got it good here.

Of course, I really think people should try to avoid problems before they occur. But human nature, my own included, constantly undermines that principle. The truth is the real push to change the voting rules in Columbia will come when a problem develops significant enough to grab the community's attention.

It's not that I don't think Columbia residents are capable of the higher-level thinking required to avoid problems. It's just that in the lives of average residents, so many pressing problems vie for attention, Columbia voting rights simply aren't registering among them.

That's why slogans and 30-second commercials are so effective in political campaigns. Not because we can't understand the message any other way. But because they quickly focus our attention on the link between an abstract political process and the reality of our daily lives.

The slogan for the one-person, one-vote campaign might one day be, "It's your city, but who's running it?"

That, at least, would imply there is a problem or a villain that needs to be eradicated. Of course, ask someone who the villain is now, and they're apt to talk you blue in the face about the intrinsic value of free and open elections.

It makes most people yawn.

The other reason Columbians aren't excited about the prospect of one-person, one-vote is more alarming.

The public's opinion is so unfavorable of the political system outside of Columbia, arguing that the city should adopt it is simply not winning converts. The partisan bickering in Washington may be an exhilarating example of democracy in action to some, but to many it's just another reason to tune out, turn off and disconnect. The cynicism bred by our national leaders is pervasive.

The results are seen in low-voter turnouts on Election Day; people's lack of involvement in their communities; the fear and alienation they feel toward one another.

In a sense, we can't embrace the idea of one-person, one-vote in Columbia because we aren't convinced of the value of it where it already exists.

We need to shake off that cynicism. It is sapping our desire to participate, which will ultimately make us unimportant -- and imperiled.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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