Canvassers flood communities to encourage higher turnout ELECTION 1994

November 09, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Robert Hilson Jr. | JoAnna Daemmrich and Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writers

Something was wrong. In the quiet community in the shadows of Mondawmin Mall, where longtime residents usually are eager to go to the polls, only a handful had voted.

But by midafternoon yesterday, the tide began to turn. A "poll TC watcher" took a look at the neighborhood's languishing turnout and called the command base of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at Frederick Douglass High School for help.

In no time, West Baltimore's Mondawmin community was flooded with canvassers knocking on doors, handing out voting leaflets and, in some cases, nearly begging residents to go vote.

"We'll get them one way or the other," said Florence Hargrove, who drove a vanload of canvassers to the area. The song "I Believe" by the Sounds of Blackness played at a near-deafening volume on the van's loudspeaker.

Democratic leaders, ministers and community activists spent all day calling, knocking on doors and lining up rides for city voters. More than 200 lawyers, paralegals and law students also scattered throughout Baltimore's predominantly black neighborhoods to combat a much-feared effort by Republican gadfly Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont to monitor "ballot security."

Dr. Pierpont's plan to station 80 security guards at polling places in the heavily Democratic inner city appeared to have fizzled. Those who feared that black voters would be intimidated or harassed reported no problems.

"I think it was puff. It hasn't materialized," said Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, who spent the day checking on city polls.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who sharply criticized Dr. Pierpont's organization for trying to suppress the black vote in the close gubernatorial election, declared success.

Dr. Pierpont said dozens of his poll watchers went out to make sure the counts were "honest and correct," but none wore uniforms. "We were very quiet about it as I told everyone we would be."

Through most of the afternoon, election officials said voter turnout was low. However, it began to pick up in the late afternoon, leading Mr. Schmoke to exuberantly declare that the "city may indeed be the deciding factor." By 8 p.m., city election officials were predicting a turnout of 58 percent, but later concluded it was closer to 43.

But in a city with only 34,000 registered Republicans, the party's gubernatorial candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, had collected nearly 37,000 votes. Her opponent, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, had more than 109,000 votes in the city.

AFSCME paid more than 200 workers $50 each to canvass the city and remind people to vote, said Michael Johnson, a coordinator of Operation Big Vote. That joint effort by AFSCME and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was designed to increase city voter turnout, especially in black communities.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church-based citizens action group, set up phones at two churches and the Maryland Food Committee to make sure voters got to the polls. And a group of ministers drove around the city in an old-fashioned trolley with a large sign, "Black Voters Will Not Be Intimidated."

More than 400 community activists and BUILD leaders went door to door throughout the city last Saturday to remind voters to go to the polls. BUILD followed up with phone calls yesterday to check if residents in 50 precincts had voted and to organize rides to the polls.

Very few Sauerbrey workers handed out pamphlets in the inner city, but longtime Democratic activists also complained about a low-profile Glendening campaign.

"There's just been no oomph to this campaign," complained Democratic activist William "Bill" Jackson at an East Baltimore poll.

In South Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood, a dozen volunteers staffed phones at St. Veronica's Catholic Church. Resident Dereck Sullivan drove a van to pick up elderly voters. "Cherry Hill has been left behind so long," he said. "We realize the power is in the vote. In order to be recognized, we need to get out the vote."

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