Making a pitch for voting

Activists hit the streets in search of people to register for the fall elections


Shannon Barber is working the busy corner of Howard and Lexington streets with a stack of voter registration forms, hawking the political franchise like so much beer at the ballpark.

"You can vote now or cry later. Don't complain about it, be about it," Barber, a tall, slim 25-year-old working for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now cries out to folks strolling by during a recent lunch hour.

"What's going on, chief, can I register you to vote - 30 seconds," he says to a young man in a baseball cap.

"Chief" shakes his head, shoots Barber an indifferent glance, saunters by. Ballpark beer might be an easier sell.

It surely would involve fewer tangles with bureaucratic elections machinery, police, security guards and the occasional testy store owner. But primary season is on, so count Barber among the troops of various political affiliations working streets, shopping malls, festivals, doorsteps and phone banks in an effort to expand voter registration around the state.

"It's just a hard thing to do," says Mitch Klein, head organizer of ACORN, a nonpartisan group with about 75 paid voter registration workers in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Prince George's counties. "You have to ask 50 people to find two."

Even if that's just a figurative expression, ACORN's workers are going to have to talk with a lot of people to make their goal of 75,000 new registrations in Maryland this year.

In pursuit of the objective since February, ACORN as of late last month had collected registration cards from nearly 37,000 people - including many low- and moderate-income residents - who "we think should be registered," Klein said.

That leaves nearly 40,000 to be netted from the ranks of the eligible and unregistered in time for the Oct. 17 deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 7 general election. The deadline to register to vote in the Sept. 12 primaries is Aug. 22.

No precise figure on the number of eligible but unregistered voters in Maryland is available, but the difference between the U.S. Census estimate of the number of Marylanders 18 or older and the state's registered voter total is about 1.1 million. That's about one of every four residents 18 or older.

For nonpartisan groups such as ACORN, and for the political parties themselves, the stakes involved in persuading some of those Marylanders to become voters are high.

The 2002 election - which resulted in a victory for a Republican gubernatorial candidate for the first time in more than three decades - was instructive and energizing for both major parties and other interest groups.

The GOP sensed a chance to build on a historic victory and create a viable two-party system by attracting more voters to its cause.

Democrats said they learned that they could not take their near-monopoly status for granted, and promised to get back to basics by registering more voters and luring them to the polls.

Neither side has gained much ground in four years.

In November 2002, when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, there were 2.7 million registered voters in the state. Fifty-six percent were Democrats, and 30 percent were Republicans.

Since then, voter rolls have grown to 3 million as of April, the result of new residents and newly registered voters, according to the most recent statistics available on the state Board of Elections Web site. Democrats make up 55 percent of the total, and Republicans constitute 29 percent.

"The needle has not moved since Ehrlich became governor, and that is a surprising, empirical fact," said Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor.

It's unclear how those newcomers might participate in the electoral process, political experts say. Some new registrants might turn out to be active voters. But others who are only reluctantly signing up to get on voter rolls likely are less involved in partisan politics, and have fewer ties to candidates and ideas, said Donald Green, a Yale University political science professor who has studied voter turnout efforts.

"I don't think that there are any clear answers to the question of the voting preferences of new voters, other than the fact that they, as a group, tend to have weaker partisan attachments than long-standing voters," Green said in an e-mail response to a question from The Sun. "This fact means that they tend to be more swayed by short-term forces in a campaign, such as the candidates' personal attributes and the salient issues in a race."

Republicans say they are trying not only to add voters, but also to persuade registered Democrats and independents to switch parties. Under Maryland law, only voters registered in a party can vote in that party's primaries.

"Voter registration is something we always do and we continuously do, whether there's an election or not," said state GOP spokeswoman Audra Miller, noting particular gains in Harford and Baltimore counties.

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