Activists search the city to enlist new voters in areas with low turnout

August 01, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Virginia Miller had been meaning to register to vote.

The 53-year-old North Baltimore resident moved back to the city more than a year ago, but she never got around to signing up.

So when she encountered a squad of a dozen "Baltimore Votes!" activists yesterday preparing to canvass her Old Goucher neighborhood in search of new voters, she jumped at the opportunity. A vote, after all, is a voice.

"I'm just not liking who we got in there right now," she said, referring to unnamed elected officials. "Maybe my vote will get them out of there."

It was a discontent heard repeatedly as volunteers with the American Friends Service Committee and the Baltimore Rehab Housing Association worked the blocks surrounding the grassy park at Calvert and 23rd streets - an area they said has one of the city's lowest rates of adults registered to vote.

"We're getting a lot of bad deals in that political thing," said Freddy Douglas, a tractor-trailer driver and grandfather of six, who was relaxing on the steps of his house in the 2200 block of Guilford St.

"With that crew in there now, with this war thing they got going on, a lot of people are upset," he said. "It's a mess now."

Douglas said he is registered, and he votes. But many in the neighborhood, he said, don't bother. "I can't speak for all black people," he said, "but a lot of 'em feel they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't."

Annie Chambers, 62, a longtime neighborhood activist, said Old Goucher - with its mix of well-kept working-class homes and boarded-up shells - is the kind of struggling rowhouse neighborhood that needs more civic involvement.

"This is where we need it most," she said. "A lot of people are disenfranchised in this community. We want them to be able to take part in the political system and vote - young people especially. My thing is, you can stand outside and holler and holler, but if you get inside, you can make a difference."

For several hours in the hot sun and muggy breezes yesterday, Andrea Deurquiza and City College student Zachary Murray, 14, climbed porches and steps and rapped on doors. They buttonholed residents in the 2200 and 2300 blocks of Barclay St. and Guilford Ave., asking them to register, fill out address-change cards or sign pledges promising they would cast ballots.

They crossed paths with well-dressed groups of evangelizing Jehovah's Witnesses, and with young men who said they weren't eligible to vote. "Convicted felon," said one. Deurquiza told him new rules allow nonviolent felons to vote if they have stayed clear of the criminal justice and probation systems for three years.

"It's a big problem" in some neighborhoods, she said.

The team received no answer to most of its knocks. At other homes, residents said they were already registered, too ill to come to the door or too young to vote.

It was slow going. Laura Goren, 23, an intern with Baltimore Votes!, said the organization has done better with registration booths at Artscape, the Caribbean festival and other large gatherings. More such campaigns are planned this month and next.

But neighborhood canvassing is a way to focus on low-registration communities. "It's a trade-off," she said.

Murray said his mother got him involved with theAFSC, a Quaker group. But he knows that voter registration is important work.

"There are a lot of issues that haven't been addressed nationally that affect us," he said. "I decided I'd try to affect that myself and try to get people registered."

Roderick "Rock" Rice, 19, a lanky Harbor City High School senior, said he has been doing community work since he was 13, starting with a "Trash Busters" cleanup, and moving on to helping in soup kitchens and organizing AFSC voter drives.

"I like to help out the neighborhood," he said. "If it involves the neighborhood, it involves me."

When his idealistic band knocked on the door of a house Lawrence Hamlett is rehabilitating in the 2200 block of Guilford Ave., Hamlett told the group he is registered. But he confessed he hasn't been voting regularly. "Somehow I just didn't like anybody," he said. "I didn't feel like anybody was telling the truth."

A recovering addict, clean for more than 11 years, he said he understands why registration is low in some parts of the city. People in the grip of substance abuse have no room in their lives for voting, he said.

Hamlett, 48, cheerfully filled out a change-of-address card and said he would start voting again in his new neighborhood, where he has become increasingly active.

A candidate's party affiliation isn't important to him, he said. "As long as they're sincere, and giving us what is needed to help the community, families and especially children. Grownups are on their own."

Yesterday's registration campaign ended with a block party in the park on Calvert Street. There was free food and entertainment, and another opportunity to register voters.

The registration deadline to vote in the Nov. 2 election is Oct. 12.

Applications are available at post offices, public libraries and colleges, marriage license bureaus, social services agencies and offices of the state Health Department and Motor Vehicle Administration. They may also be downloaded from the state Board of Elections at Information: 800-222-8683.

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