A troubling malaise

September 13, 2007

Mayor Sheila Dixon's humility in the face of victory may seem curious since she overwhelmingly defeated her closest opponent. But when you look at the numbers, the mayor won Tuesday's primary with the votes of less than a fifth of registered Democrats. Turnout was low, and some say not unusually so, but it shouldn't be forgotten in the post-primary euphoria of Ms. Dixon's win. She has her work cut out for her, and energizing the electorate should be high on her list.

According to city election board estimates, nearly 31 percent of Baltimore's registered Democrats cast ballots, lower than the figures from 2003 and from 1999, when 49 percent turned out for a contentious three-way primary race for mayor. According to the most recent elections count, Ms. Dixon received 50,639 votes in this primary, not even a fifth of the city's 263,334 registered Democrats.

Tuesday's turnout isn't necessarily a reflection of Ms. Dixon's popularity or the support she can claim - or muster. There will be plenty of opportunities to test that in the coming months. But it does reflect an apathy, a malaise, that can't be blamed on rainy skies or the suggestion that Ms. Dixon's top billing in pre-election polls kept voters at home because they felt she would win regardless of whether they cast a ballot.

That's wrongheaded thinking about voting, and about what's at stake for the mayor. The turnout is worrisome because it mirrors the public's disturbing lack of outrage over Baltimore's staggering murder rate and a disheartening performance of too many city schools.

Both are issues that dominate voters' concerns and should preoccupy Ms. Dixon as she sets her course over the next four years. But city residents can't expect things to happen or change without their input and involvement. Ms. Dixon is clearly sensitive to voters' concerns; one of the first things she did as interim mayor was to modify the Police Department's zero-tolerance arrest policy that was resulting in thousands of arrests that were never prosecuted.

On election night, as Dixon campaign officials watched her margin of victory leap beyond their expectations, the mayor was mindful of the turnout and talked about it privately with some of her supporters. She cared less about the number, according to one aide, than what it said about how engaged citizens were in the process.

Indeed, the challenges facing the city can't be tackled solely by City Hall. Baltimore's future is in the hands of its citizens - and their participation in improving it is the vote that truly counts.

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