Excuses aside, Maryland voter turnout an embarrassment

In other countries, voters face real obstacles to exercise their right

In Ukraine last month, some people braved the threat of violence to get to the polls to vote for a new president. According to news reports, heavily armed men in ski masks tried to scare off voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking entry to polling stations in the eastern part of the country; election officials were threatened, some kidnapped.

In Maryland, we just had a primary election to nominate candidates for governor — you know, like the president of Maryland — and the voter turnout was embarrassingly low. The vast majority of registered Democrats and Republicans did not participate.

There were no masked gunmen, and no election judges were abducted. So why did so few Marylanders exercise a right that — pardon this purple flourish — people all over the world have fought and died for?

Excuse me while I list excuses.

I'll start with the obvious: We take voting and the democratic process for granted. We think, "Someone else will do it," and they usually do. We've had breathtakingly low voter turnout before — see Baltimore City elections, 2011 — but not so low that the majority of us gets embarrassed and swears never to let it happen again.

We also want to be entertained. If a contested election isn't entertaining, if it isn't exciting, we stay home and watch something that is. Apparently, even with Doug Gansler running for governor, the Maryland primary wasn't entertaining enough for more than a small percentage of registered Democrats.

I could go on, so I will.

Here's another: The Maryland primary was moved from September to June, and people weren't ready for it. This reminds me of a brown T-shirt I saw on a guy at the state fair 20 years ago: "I'm so poor I can't even pay attention." I'm not sure what that has to do with the 2014 election, but I'm channeling it. I mean: You didn't know there was an election this month? There weren't enough TV commercials alerting you to the fact?

Here's another theory about low turnout: Early voting might be a culprit. I used to think it was a good idea, but now I'm not so sure. Easy voting is sold as a convenience for citizens who are really engaged and diligent about getting to the polls, but now I'm thinking that early voting might just diminish the specialness of Election Day.

Election Day should be a celebrated civic event, highly anticipated, a dress-up affair, a red-letter day, your big chance to be a good citizen.

But look what happened: A week of early voting set a record for a primary. More than 140,000 Marylanders went to the polls to cast votes between June 12 and June 19.

That means they didn't have to go June 24.

So we didn't have much of a Primary Day.

I know: There are many other reasons. People are sick of politics and politicians. People are still worried about the economy, their jobs, their households. People think their votes do not matter, especially in Maryland, where Democrats dominate and set the public agenda statewide year after year.

And, with one or two exceptions, the leading candidates were pretty — let me be polite — ordinary.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the favorite in the Democratic gubernatorial primary — nice guy, but not a lot of that vision thing there. He ran a careful campaign designed to put him across the finish line first. Brown represents a safe choice; he represents continuity and stability, and that might have been all Democrats are looking for this year.

Gansler, Brown's chief rival, was a good attorney general; he had sound credentials. But he had that Google problem — the photo from the teen beach party last year — and his attempt to portray himself as an Annapolis outsider didn't really fly.

Heather Mizeur, the state delegate, had the most detailed plans (including a plan to legalize and tax marijuana to pay for an expansion of pre-K education). She actually created a buzz with her candidacy. If anyone got people excited, it was Mizeur among progressives, liberals and libertarians.

In fact, the only detectable buzz came from Mizeur supporters and, on the Republican side, those of Larry Hogan. Hogan ran a smart campaign that could make him a real competitor in the general election.

Look, I'm a newspaper guy. Newspaper people are supposed to be engaged and vigilant citizens who care about our political system. We're supposed to keep you informed about your government and the people who run it.

So pardon me if this has sounded like a civics lecture. But it's depressing as hell to see so few people taking part in a process that ultimately affects their lives and their livelihoods.

Other people walk many miles and stand in long lines, shouldering through all kinds of intimidation, to vote. And we can't get more than a small percentage of registered Republicans and Democrats out to the polls for a few precious minutes on a breezy summer day.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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