Getting out the vote

October 17, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

FOURTEEN YEARS ago, a woman walked out of a Baltimore County polling place to explain why she had voted to unseat the county executive, Dennis F. Rasmussen.

"When he got in there," she said through clenched teeth, "the first thing he did was take a trip to Disneyland." She'd been waiting four years to show her displeasure.

Voters can have long memories. They may not always act on their anger, but occasionally they push back. In 1990, the so-called anti-incumbency election, voters regarded longevity in office as a liability.

Junkets apparently made you even more vulnerable. Stars were suddenly eclipsed across the country.

Something like that upheaval may be under way this year. On Nov. 2, a president could be retired by voters who've been waiting four years to express their outrage over an election in which the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to elect the president. Voters are preparing to turn out in numbers that might even reverse the steady trend toward less voter participation. Think of a big turnout as the upside of Florida 2000.

The wave of voter registrations can be explained in many other ways, to be sure. The wars on terrorism and in Iraq create a sense of unease and a desire to do something. People are anxious to demonstrate displeasure with the incumbent, George W. Bush, on a range of issues apart from the manner in which he took office.

Or they are totally unpersuaded that John Kerry has the fortitude to lead the nation in a time of uncertainty.

Ex-Marine Michael Clark -- a diesel mechanic, African-American and Democrat -- stopped at a voter registration table in Mondawmin Mall Tuesday to make sure his vote could be cast. He's aware that many voters have been denied their ballots on what may seem to be technicalities. He's voting for Mr. Bush.

"I like the fact that Bush is trying to nip this thing in the bud. He's got a big job ahead of him, and I don't know if Kerry's got the heart for it," Mr. Clark said.

On the other side of that equation is Joyce Wheeler, a former teacher, who has devoted much of her retirement to encouraging political involvement. Like many Maryland backers of Mr. Kerry, she's been traveling to Pennsylvania or West Virginia and elsewhere in search of votes.

"My husband and I went to St. Louis and worked in St. Louis to turn out the vote," she said last weekend while campaigning at the 33rd Street Farmer's Market. "That's a battleground state. I was delighted with Kerry's sound bite that if Missouri were a member of our vaunted coalition (in Iraq) it would be the third-largest member."

It's likely that efforts to help Mr. Kerry are matched by GOP efforts on behalf of President Bush. In recent years, Democrats concede, Republicans have sharpened their GOTV machinery -- their get-out-the-vote squads.

Is there a general upside in all this ferment? Can the nation's red-blue divide be bridged by the zeal to register and vote? Partisans can agree on the importance of a vigorous electorate. How can a democracy be healthy when the citizens are demoralized, discouraged or uninvolved? The lower the turnout in elections, the more influence flows from the people to the special interests (social or religious or corporate) who can and do mobilize their supporters.

The "Register & Vote" and the "Vote or Die" campaigns this year try to be nonpartisan, with their leaders preaching the pure democratic value of going to the polls.

"It's not really a partisan issue," says Hassan Allen-Giordano, one of the youth leaders in Baltimore. "If you like Bush, you like Bush. But get out and vote. Whether you vote for Bush or Kerry or Nader or anybody else. Just make sure that you have a voice in this democracy."

This nation has watched others struggle for democracy in the past without rousing itself to vote. In other countries, vote or die has had a meaning beyond the urging of P. Diddy, the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen. Maybe we understand that after 9/11.

C. Fraser Smith is news director WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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