Voters are aging, fewer, battling tide of apathy Nonvoters not sure their ballot matters

Primary 1998

September 16, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich, Caitlin Francke, Anne Haddad, Joan Jacobson, Howard Libit and TaNoah Morgan contributed to this article.

Carol Herndon surveyed the voters making their way down Roland Avenue to the Hampden fire station, polling place for Ward 13 of Baltimore's Second Precinct.

"It's touching, but everybody is older," she said of the slow trickle of people, many using canes, some walkers.

"I think I've handed out literature to two young people."

By young, the 68-year-old Herndon -- working the poll for the city's sitting judges -- did not mean under 40 years old, but under retirement age.

"One said he wasn't sure if he was going to vote," she said of those two. "The other wasn't registered."

The turnout in yesterday's primary election, estimated to be about 30 percent, was the lowest in a gubernatorial primary in memory.

With few contested statewide races, those who voted tended to do so not out of compelling interest, but from a sense of civic duty -- often instilled decades ago.

"I haven't missed an election since I turned 21," said Joseph Schwartz, 90, after voting in the firehouse. "I don't see why [young people] don't vote. There's nothing to lose."

That generation gap was evident in Catonsville, where Deborah Edwards and David Seals were sitting out the primary waiting for their laundry outside Paradise Suds on Frederick Road.

Politicians "say one thing at election time and something else the rest of the time," said Edwards, 41, a Democrat.

"You feel like you're wasting your time."

Agreed Seals, 27: "I've just given up on voting. None of them ever do what they promise."

But across the street at the Paradise Cleaners, Jean Duffy, 68, took a break between customers and said the only time she had missed voting was when she was hospitalized.

"If you don't vote," she said, "then you've given up your right to gripe."

Donald F. Norris, professor of policy studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said people have always tended to vote more regularly as they grow older.

What is not known is whether today's young nonvoters will evolve into voters.

"Some scholarship suggests that the younger generations are less politically active than their parents and grandparents were, measured in voting and other activities," Norris said.

"The reason seems to be less partisan identification with political parties and, more importantly, people feel less politically effective."

Focus on minor matters

Nonvoter Aspasia Kalapothakos, a 21-year-old senior at Towson University, feels that way.

"I don't see a point," she said while on a class visit to the Towson courthouse.

"There's so much focus on miniscule topics such as Monica Lewinsky that they've taken the focus from what really matters -- and that's us."

Another relative youngster, Mark Hodgeman -- a 30-year-old student teacher -- was spending the day at the flying disc golf course in Druid Hill Park.

"I registered to vote a few weeks ago when I got my driver's license," the Bolton Hill resident said.

"But they never sent me anything, so I don't know where to go."

His companions agreed.

'Kind of a slacker'

"I'm kind of a slacker politically," said one, Andy Loweree, 29, a bike messenger currently on the injured list. "I guess I'm registered. Do you have to do anything to register?"

But across the park, Corey Shaw, 22, showed there are always exceptions to every trend -- by visiting the polls before heading for the park's basketball courts.

"I've got to get my word in," said the Coppin State University student. "A lot of people who don't vote want things to change, but they don't put the effort in."

Same with Grace Gutrich, who showed up to vote at St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Prince George's County with her three children: Philip, 13, Kimberly, 9, and Krysten, 3.

"This is part of my being a role model to them," said Gutrich, 41, a schoolteacher. "I really believe in voting."

The current scandal involving President Clinton clearly affected some.

"When I got up this morning, I said to myself, 'What's the point?' " said Robert Dunleavy, a Democrat, as he headed to vote at Annapolis Elementary School.

"But I quickly decided that's not the right thing to do."

In Prince George's County, Harold MacDonald, a 35-year-old plumber, said he and his wife were fed up.

"I thought for the first time of not going," he said, after casting his ballot at Kingsford Elementary School. "I wondered, 'Why vote? Does it even matter?' My wife still isn't sure."

At Mondawmin Mall, 41-year-old Michael Dunn also mentioned the Clinton scandal to explain his nonvoting.

"I just don't think it makes much of a difference to my neighborhood," he said. "I pray a lot."

But his lifelong friend, Kevin Sullivan, 39, disagreed: "I've been voting ever since I was 18. My mother was active in the civil-rights movement. She's not with us anymore, but I'm trying to carry on for her."

Turnout at retirement homes

Even among some older voters, turnout was spotty.

At Catonsville's 16th Precinct -- better known as the Charlestown Retirement Community -- only 37 percent of the people had voted by late afternoon.

But at Oak Crest Village, a Parkville retirement community that became its own precinct this year, turnout was far heavier than the state average.

By 4: 30 p.m., roughly half of the 1,489 registered voters had cast ballots, and many residents were standing in line.

That wasn't the case at Bates Middle School in Annapolis where a bored poll worker, county schoolteacher Gayle Morrow, surveyed the floor in the empty cafeteria and said, "I'm going to go roller-blading here in a while."

And back at the empty Hampden fire station, poll worker Jul Owings worked on her nails while waiting for voters to show up.

"I'm just doing this so the smell won't bother them," she said hopefully.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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