Many disaffected residents steer clear of polling places


November 02, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

Angela Forrester doesn't have to decide whether to cast her vote by absentee ballot or at her polling place.

She doesn't even have to worry about whether to vote for Martin O'Malley or Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor, or how to choose between Benjamin L. Cardin and Michael S. Steele for the U.S. Senate.

That's because the 46-year-old clerk isn't voting.

"I didn't even bother to register," Forrester says emphatically, sitting on the steps of her rented rowhouse in a troubled stretch of Southwest Baltimore. "I feel as though these people running say one thing before the election and, once they're elected, don't do half the things they say they're going to do."

If the past is prologue, Forrester will hardly be alone in her decision - or her disaffection.

That, despite an election featuring the state's first open U.S. Senate seat in two decades in a year when party control of Congress hangs in the balance and a bitter, down-to-the-wire battle in which the incumbency of the first Republican governor in a generation is threatened by the city's mayor.

According to the Maryland Board of Elections, turnout in the 2002 gubernatorial general election was 62 percent in the state and 55 percent in Baltimore.

But those figures calculate turnout based on the percentage of registered voters who voted. Calculate turnout based on those who could vote but, like Forrester, don't bother to register, and the figure is much lower.

Maryland voter turnout in the 2002 general election as a percentage of residents ages 18 and older was 42 percent, according to the U.S. Elections Project at George Mason University.

Take out noncitizens and felons who are old enough to vote but are by law ineligible to cast ballots and the figure rises slightly, to 46 percent, according to the project's Web site.

In Baltimore, not quite one out of three people ages 18 and older voted in the gubernatorial general election in 2002, according to Vital Signs IV, a publication of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance that seeks to chart trends in neighborhoods by a variety of measurements. (In 2004, a presidential election year that drew larger numbers of voters, a little less than 44 percent of the voting-age residents of Baltimore cast ballots.)

In 12 out of 55 community statistical areas, which group the city's 260 neighborhoods along census tract boundaries, fewer than one of four people ages 18 and older voted in the 2002 gubernatorial general election, according to the publication; in most, fewer than half were registered.

The areas include a swath designated as Southwest Baltimore, which lies west of the University of Maryland at Baltimore and encompasses several neighborhoods. Among them are Shipley Hill, Mill Hill and Booth-Boyd, where Forrester lives.

The neighborhood, around where West Lombard Street dead-ends at Frederick Avenue, is identified by a small, wooden welcome sign.

The sign is on a vacant corner lot next door to one of several boarded-up rowhouses on the block and across from a faded, falling sign for a shuttered carryout.

Diagonally across the street, three young drug dealers operate with impunity in the unseasonably warm afternoon sun, one clutching a wad of bills the likes of which would not be out of place around a craps table at a Las Vegas casino.

Not far away, Irving Singleton, a self-described "now and again" voter, says he's planning to go to the polls. "I am a damned Democrat, and I want to see the Republicans get the hell out of there," the 76-year-old retired milkman says.

So is Tanya Taylor, 47, a regular voter who hopes her vote might make a modicum of difference in the lives of her eight children but understands why many of her neighbors don't bother.

"Most people are on drugs or selling drugs," says Taylor, who is on medical leave from a job managing a fast-food restaurant, with some exaggeration. "It's not important to them. The people they put in office don't seem to be doing nothing."

In the 2100 block of Hollins St., that last sentiment predominates.

Allen Bell, a retired furniture mover, last voted in 1975. He sums up his feeling about elections with a line from a 1985 Richard Pryor film Brewster's Millions: "None of the above."

"Just like New Orleans, the government isn't going to do nothing," he says.

Then there's Forrester, who pays $360 a month for her rowhouse and describes herself as a "little above poverty."

"They don't do anything about anything," she says of politicians. "Health care is going up, gas is going up, electricity."

She points to a boarded-up rowhouse across the street, where last year firefighters responding to a burning building found a man dying of bullet wounds.

"We have all these empty houses," she says. "We don't have jobs. The guys on the corner want to work. What are they going to do? ... In this area particularly, people are fed up. They're tired."

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