We should be worried about the nonvoters

September 13, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Laurence Tichnell is sitting at a bench in a small park near Greenmount and North avenues, taking occasional sips from a brown paper bag. It is shortly after 3 o'clock on a balmy Monday afternoon.

"Hi," I say cheerfully as I walk up. "Planning on voting tomorrow?"

Mr. Tichnell looks me up and down, takes a sip from his bag, then places it between his knees out of view under the bench. He is 48 years old, dressed in oil-smeared work clothes and a baseball cap.

"No," he says.

"Why not?" I ask.

Mr. Tichnell considers this for several moments, staring out at the heavy traffic moving up and down Greenmount Avenue.

"'Cause I don't [care]," he answers, using an inappropriate phrase to indicate that he doesn't care. I sit down beside him and look into his eyes with great sympathy. I would have taken his hand, but they were gripping his bottle underneath the bench.

"Why don't you care?" I ask.

This approach apparently persuades Mr. Tichnell to unburden himself. "Why should I [care]?" he demands bitterly. "What difference is it going to make? What's going to happen? They don't [care] about me, why should I [care] about them?"

A Baltimore native who lives in the city's Middle East section, Mr. Tichnell says he has been unemployed since June 1993, when he was laid off from a maintenance job. He is unmarried. He owns no property. He says he "did time" in the early 1980s for possession of drugs and possession of a handgun.

And he says he cannot remember the last time he felt like voting in any election.

Mr. Tichnell adds that he does not consider himself a citizen of this society and I would have to agree with him. My dictionary describes a citizen as "a person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to government protection." Mr. Tichnell feels no such allegiance. He has established none of the ties -- family, job, property -- that normally bind men and women to their neighbors. He strikes me as angry and disaffected -- disenfranchised in the truest sense of the word.

I think we ought to be worried about such people. A significant proportion of the current wave of crime and violence originates from those who are politically, socially and economically disenfranchised; and their numbers are said to be growing.

It would have been nice if we had had a slate of candidates this year who expressed concern for this growing pool of disenfranchised and disaffected people. But campaigns at every level have been marked this year by punitive approaches to social issues, and an occasionally ugly, us vs. them tinge to campaign rhetoric.

Sadly, such rhetoric does little to inspire the disenfranchised to participate, nor does it reassure anyone else. Often it is despair, not apathy, that keeps people from the polls.

For instance, officials with the state board of election supervisors predict that today we will have one of the lowest turnouts for a primary in modern state history, particularly in the city. Estimates range from 30 to 40 percent of registered voters, and that is considered an optimistic prediction. Even affluent voters told pollsters last week that they doubted their votes would result in any noticeable change in their lives.

"Voter registration was extremely low this year," says Barbara E. Jackson, administrator of the board of supervisors of elections for the city. "It is the lowest I've ever seen for a gubernatorial election, and I've been here for 27 years.

"This problem is all over the country," Ms. Jackson continues. "Even when organizations make the effort to get people registered, those people rarely bother to vote. We see the same people registering, getting removed from the books because they didn't vote, then re-registering."

"Do you believe voting makes a difference?" I ask.

"Oh, definitely," Ms. Jackson replies. "If you look around the country, those states with the highest voter turnouts seem to have more resources, better police departments, a better welfare system, better schools. Those states even look cleaner. I think voting makes a difference. I think that when people participate, governments become more effective and more responsive."

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