Voter decline saps political might of city Officials blame exodus of residents, general apathy

33,000 fewer since 1994

2000 redistricting could diminish clout in Annapolis

Campaign 1998

August 24, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

City election officials tallying voter registrations for next month's Maryland primary estimate that Baltimore will have lost about 33,000 voters since the last governor's race in 1994.

That means Baltimore voters will make up 11.5 percent of the state electorate in November, just slightly more than one of every 10 potential votes, down from one in five in 1978. The drop will have a larger impact in 2000, when the state will redraw political boundaries and likely reduce the city's strength in Annapolis.

Much of the loss is because of the city's continuing population drop. Baltimore's population declines at a rate of 1,000 per month. City election leaders also blame rising political apathy among Baltimore residents.

In 1978, the city had 386,600 voters. By 1994, the number dropped to 320,000, a loss of 17 percent in 16 years. The annual rate of voter decline over the last four years has been greater.

The city is expected to have about 287,000 voters for the Sept. 15 primary, translating into a loss of one out of every four city voters, nearly 26 percent, over the last 20 years.

"Further erosion of the population makes it more difficult to maintain the urban clout in Annapolis," Herb Smith, a political consultant and professor at Western Maryland College, said of the city voter loss.

Baltimore Elections Director Barbara E. Jackson saw the disenchantment of city residents while trying to register new voters at the Stone Soul Picnic celebration at Druid Hill Park last weekend. Many festival-goers waved their hand at Jackson's urge to register.

"The apathy in this city is awful," she said.

But Jackson also attributes the large four-year city voter drop to the federal government's Motor Voter Law. Passed in 1994, the law allows residents to register at public facilities such as libraries and MVA offices. But the law also requires elections directors to remove voters from the rolls if they have been inactive for five years.

Despite its loss of voters, Baltimore will again play a critical role in the November election, particularly for incumbent Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Statewide, Republicans have registered more voters than Democrats by slightly more than 50,000 since 1994. But Baltimore Democrats still hold a 3-to-1 lead over their GOP counterparts, making the city crucial to Glendening.

"We're a strong Democratic block," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said. "I think the governor will carry the city, but I don't think that's his issue. His issue is: By what margin does he carry it?"

The drop in city voters and population may have a bigger impact in 2000, when the state redraws political boundaries based on census figures. As a result of the population drop, Baltimore is expected to lose strength in the state General Assembly.

State legislators are talking about consolidating political districts so Baltimore delegates do not overlap into surrounding counties. Schmoke opposes the move, saying the city needs to maintain regional ties.

"That would not be good for us politically; it diminishes our strength in Annapolis," Schmoke said. "Our problems are really regional problems and not just discrete jurisdictions."

The loss of residents and constituents in 2000 will likely resurrect debate about whether Baltimore's 19-member City Council should be reduced. As the state legislative districts are redrawn, Schmoke expects debate over city council seats to rise again, he said.

"It's worth discussion for cities of our size," Schmoke said. "Counties our size have councils of about nine members or seven members, and ours is a 19-member council, so I do think it's worth discussion."

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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