The continuing mystery of the vanishing voters Low turnout: Despite considerable public expense and unmistakably high stakes, apathy won in a landslide as the people of the 7th District elected overwhelmingly to stay home last Tuesday.

The Political Game

April 23, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

WHAT IF they gave an election and no one came?

We almost found out last Tuesday, when only 22,000 voters in the 7th District -- just 8 percent of those registered -- turned out to elect their next congressman.

When the smoke cleared, Democrat Elijah E. Cummings had ridden a landslide of 17,912 votes to Capitol Hill over Republican Kenneth Kondner, who picked up only 4,131 votes in the special election to replace Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

To put that in perspective, consider that each of Maryland's eight congressional districts has about 600,000 people in them, and in the 7th, which includes much of the city and western Baltimore County, about 270,000 are registered voters.

It was an all-time low indeed.

In the city, 15,000 voters showed up at the polls -- 7.3 percent of those registered in the 7th, which in recent years has suffered from low-turnout syndrome. Compare that to the last special election in Baltimore -- a citywide vote May 13, 1969, to approve eliminating a 5 percent interest-rate ceiling on $217 million worth of approved, but unissued, bonds for capital improvements. (It was the political equivalent of watching paint dry.)

Even then, with no humans running for office, 17 percent of voters turned out -- back when 17 percent meant something. In 1969, it translated to about 75,000 of the city's 431,000 registered voters.

"It disgusts me to think that people don't care any more about their government, which decides what gets done with their tax dollars, which schools open or close, whether a rec center is kept open, or whether to give more money to Medicare," said Barbara E. Jackson, city election administrator.

"People don't realize how important it is to vote for the person who's making the decision for you on where your money's going," Ms. Jackson said.

Well, at least $310,000 of it is going to pay for the special election.

In cash-poor Baltimore City, where Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is proposing to jack up the piggyback income tax, the election board estimates it will have spent at least $200,000 for the election -- a race caused by Mr. Mfume's sudden exit from Congress to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

That means that city taxpayers will cough up about $13.30 a vote.

Baltimore County, where about a quarter of the 7th District's registered voters reside, will spend about $110,000 for the election, a race that determined that Mr. Cummings would serve Mr. Mfume's term through the end of the year.

At least in the county, 10.4 percent of the 67,613 registered voters in the 7th turned out. But the city got more bang for its buck. County taxpayers will end up paying about $15.65 a vote.

And if it weren't for the merged primaries -- the March 5 two-fer that required emergency legislation to have the special primary the same day as Maryland's regularly scheduled primary -- it would have cost taxpayers twice that.

So, for an average of $14 a vote, taxpayers in the 7th District have a new congressman. And at least 22,000 of them actually noticed.

They get to do it all over again Nov. 5, when Mr. Cummings and Mr. Kondner face each other for the full, two-year congressional term that begins in January.

Former Clarke adviser joins Mikulski staff

Cheryl Benton, a Baltimore-based political consultant, has landed on Capitol Hill after managing Mary Pat Clarke's unsuccessful primary bid for mayor last year.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski named Ms. Benton as her liaison to the Senate Democratic Conference, the senators' legislative strategy arm.

Ms. Benton replaces Kevin F. Kelly, a longtime Mikulski aide who left in December to become a lobbyist as vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates Inc.

In another change in Ms. Mikulski's office, Rachel Kunzler, who has been the senator's press secretary for the past two years and the deputy for 2 1/2 years before that, is leaving. Ms. Kunzler now will be a mouthpiece for the endangered National Endowment for the Arts.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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