At election time, many black men not on the scene

August 20, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

The profile of a voter in Baltimore is roughly this: a black woman of about 40, a churchgoer with a decent job. Black men, whether professionals or "brothers on the corner," often aren't in the picture. Many don't see why they should vote - or they're disqualified by virtue of involvement with the criminal justice system.

These are rough approximations of reality, but they are close enough to the truth for political purposes. And the implications are troubling, to say the least. An important part of the black community offers political leaders no reason to care about or address its concerns. If you don't vote in this country, you don't count politically.

As a candidate for the state Senate in Baltimore's 40th District, Tara Andrews found her interest in this problem grow into a pragmatic concern. A survey of the electorate in her center-city senatorial district confirmed her worst fears. She knew young black men didn't vote. It's part of a pattern.

"If there's a negative indicator of status in this society, black men are always at the bottom: in education, employment, whatever," she says.

But the numbers she found were even more profoundly distressing.

Of approximately 47,000 registered black voters in her district, about 4,300 were between 18 and 35. Between 1994 and 2002, only 2,500 went to the polls, and that's a cumulative total for all the elections in this eight-year period.

Many of those who don't vote say they have no faith their participation makes a difference for them. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having lobbied for various causes in Annapolis for the last five years, Ms. Andrews says, "I understand even more clearly how politics works, how the policymaking process works. These young black men are not a constituency the politicians have to respond to for anything."

Many of those who don't vote are among the estimated 150,000 Marylanders barred from the voting booth by their convictions, by bureaucratic requirements that make reinstatement of voting rights difficult, and by a political tug of war between the two major political parties.

Republicans get blamed often for blocking the return of ex-felons to the voting roles. Ms. Andrews doesn't buy it. If the problem were just the Republicans, she says, it could be solved by the General Assembly's majority, the Democrats. "It's not a priority for them," she says.

Black leaders must share the blame, Ms. Andrews says. They aren't necessarily interested in seeing a lot of new voters in their districts. "They know they will continue to get elected without fixing the problem." she says.

Ms. Andrews concedes that one of her opponents, Del. Salima S. Marriott, is a longtime advocate of restoring voter privileges to felons and to making it easier for those who want to vote to get to the ballot box. Ms. Marriott was one of the sponsors of legislation extending the voting period for five days this year. If she were in the Assembly, Ms. Andrews says, she would promote virtually instant voter rights for ex-felons.

"You should be eligible to vote as soon as your feet hit the street. You paid your debt," she says.

There are many issues black voters could and should be addressing. The black community has had a love-hate relationship with the police. While many young black men find their life prospects ruined by criminal activity, others in the community are typically the victims. It's a conflict that all the voters ought to be grappling with, she says.

She is not comforted by the dominant position of black women in the electorate.

"To the extent that I'm up here and black males are down there ... we're not whole as a community," she says.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmiht@wypr.org.

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