Street registrars see voters' mood: anger and apathy

But a few approached in city plan to take part in 1999 elections

Move to register homeless

August 09, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

"Register to vote?"

"Register to vote?"

"Register to vote?"

Ten workers from Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development -- BUILD -- have fanned across East Monument Street near Northeast Market, clipboards in hand, trying desperately to interest people in their civic rights.

Many of the shoppers and Johns Hopkins Hospital workers who clogged the sidewalks here at midday treated the yellow T-shirt-clad registrars as if they were solicitors or con men, out to make a buck. They shouldered past, eyes averted. Some muttered, often unconvincingly, that they were registered.

Others looked disgusted, as if they had smelled something particularly bad beneath the fried chicken aroma that dominated the area.

But -- sweet novelty -- every now and then, a person actually tugged a volunteer's arm and said, "Hey, could I register to vote?"

"You develop a tough skin after a while," organizer Scott Cooper said philosophically. "There's a lot of apathy, and there's a lot of anger."

Since June 1, BUILD volunteers tried daily to register city voters, hoping to have 6,000 signed up before the Aug. 16 cutoff.

With more than 4,000 registered, they say they are on schedule to meet that goal.

It is one of only a few comprehensive voter registration drives in the city this summer and more successful than all the city efforts combined last year, according to Cooper, who said 2,000 voters were added to the rolls last year.

Their efforts often put them in the path of unhappy voters, who treat the volunteers as sounding boards for their complaints. Anyone who wants to know the mood of the Baltimore voter should spend an afternoon on a corner with BUILD volunteers.

Last week, when volunteers returned to Northeast Market, one of their most successful sites, they encountered the usual mix of responses from potential voters.

Patricia Edwards, 32, who grew up in the neighborhood, was coaxing old friends, such as John Ham Jr., 34, an adamant nonvoter.

"You know you're like family to me, but I just won't do it," he said. Ham's reasoning works this way: U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a 7th District Democrat, let him down when Ham appealed to the congressman's office for help to collect unemployment benefits from the state. So he has no use for politicians.

Did it ever occur to him that politicians might be more responsive to registered voters? he was asked.

"Sure," Ham conceded. But he just can't get excited about anyone in the 26-candidate field for mayor of Baltimore. "I do have a `Draft Mfume' shirt, but that didn't happen. I don't care. I just don't care."

Edwards sighed. "A lot of people feel discouraged about voting," she said.

"I explain to them it's not a lost cause ," but she spotted another potential voter and sprinted off without finishing her thought.

Minutes later, she was dogging a man who said he couldn't vote -- he's a convicted felon. This is a common misconception in Baltimore. It takes two felony convictions to lose one's voting rights in Maryland. With one felony conviction, once the criminal has completed his or her sentence and parole, he or she is allowed to vote again.

"Are you sure?" the man said, squinting dubiously at Edwards. "Are you sure this isn't some scam? My mother did this last week, and someone ran up her long-distance bill."

Edwards said he could leave spaces for his Social Security number and phone number blank if providing the information made him uneasy. The only absolute requirements for the form are name, address and date of birth. The man decided to do that.

Across Monument Street, Johns Hopkins University graduate student David Snyder was on a roll.

A student of political theory, Snyder welcomes what he calls the "chance to make theory real." Indefatigable and apparently immune to insult, he persuaded 25 people to sign voters' cards. But he estimated it took almost 100 contacts to get those 25.

Linda Johnson, deep in thought, threw up her hands and yelled when Snyder approached her.

A few feet later, she met another BUILD registrar and regretted the way she had treated Snyder. Sheepishly, she backtracked and apologized.

"When I first passed him, I just had a lot of attitude," said Johnson, 42, who lives in Northwest Baltimore and cannot remember the last time she voted, although she knows she was registered at one point. "I thought he was selling something."

The BUILD workers make few assumptions about the people who pass them. They approach Hopkins workers on their lunch breaks, girls with babies who may or may not be old enough to vote and self-described "market rats" such as June Brown, 75, who argued with Cooper about the futility of it all.

"Ain't nobody running," he said. Informed that 27 people were vying to be mayor, he amended his statement. "Twenty-seven nobodies, and 26 of 'em, I ain't heard of before."

The field was further reduced Friday when one of the candidates was disqualified for failing to file a financial disclosure form.

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