- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

ST. MICHAELS, Md. (AP) — Maryland is one of the best educated and most affluent states in the country but has for years ranked near the bottom in political participation.

Marylanders largely stayed home in 2000, during one of the tightest national elections in modern history. They stayed home again in 2004, despite a lively debate over the war in Iraq.

And last fall, when Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, slugged it out with incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, more than 2 million residents — about half of the adults in the state — failed to participate in the process.

The state ranked 33rd in the country in voter registration in 2004, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and is likely to remain in the bottom half for voter registration when comprehensive statistics from last fall’s election become available, said former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis.

“The root of the problem in Maryland is voter registration, because you don’t do too bad when you look at turnout among registered voters,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., a D.C. company that monitors voting trends.

The state’s political culture is shaped by several factors, ranging from a heavy Democratic registration majority, which makes many statewide races less competitive, to cynicism about the political process and the disenfranchisement of convicted felons in Baltimore and other urban centers, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The complex factors governing who chooses to vote and who chooses not to are illustrated by the Eastern Shore, home to Talbot County, with the highest voter registration in the state, and Somerset County, with the lowest.

Talbot County had the highest voter-registration rate in the state, 92.3 percent, in 2004.

Relatively unspoiled by development, with hundreds of miles of shoreline on the upper Chesapeake Bay, Talbot is a magnet for retiring politicians. Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and former U.S. Sens. Birch Bayh and John B. Breaux have homes there.

Belief in the political process pervades daily life in Talbot County. Activists lobby, form alliances, gather signatures for voter-led initiatives and write dozens of letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

Last year, both parties ran nonstop voter-registration drives. Democrats targeted minorities and held a big neighborhood party. Republicans set up tables at Wal-Mart and the Easton Farmer’s Market.

“The secret is finding people with time, and that’s what we have here,” said Catherine Poe, 70, president of the Talbot County Democratic Forum. A transplant from Long Island, N.Y., she once led the country’s third-largest chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Hugh Smith, who manages Coldwell Banker’s operations there and whose father served as a diplomat and adviser on nuclear disarmament for several presidents, boiled down the political culture theory to hope.

“People who have hope, who believe that their votes will make a difference, go to the polls,” Mr. Smith said. “In Talbot, the demographic is such that everyone believes their votes are going to make a difference.”

Kate Boland, 57, a Democrat-turned-Republican raised in Chicago, estimates that just about the only people not registered to vote in Talbot County are young people and newcomers.

An hour-and-a-half drive to the south lies Crisfield, an economically hard-pressed fishing town in Somerset County, where front porches sag from generations of neglect and the median household income in 1999 was much less than Talbot’s, according to the 2000 census.

In 2004, fewer than 58 percent of voting-age residents were registered in Somerset County, the lowest rate in the state.

“They say they don’t want to (register to vote) because they’ll be called for jury duty, which is just an excuse, or they say they’re felons,” said Elton P. Maddox, president of the Somerset County Board of Elections.

The signs of economic struggle are everywhere in Crisfield, where people worry more about survival than debating politics.

The number of seafood processor companies in Crisfield has dropped from 30 to three, largely because the crabs are now imported from Indonesia. A knife factory that employed hundreds closed about 15 years ago, and a new “luxury” condo development is at risk for foreclosure.

“When you’re eking out a living, unfortunately, voting is not what’s on your mind,” said John K. Phoebus, the town’s only full-time lawyer. “We have poverty, but we’re also hard-working. The watermen here are going to rise well before dawn and work as long as the Department of Natural Resources allows. They’re going to spend the rest of the day selling their catch. At the end of the day, they’re dead tired.”

Mr. Willis said Somerset’s political culture is much different from Talbot’s.

“In traditional cultures, like Somerset’s, people view government as preserving the status quo for a very, very small number of elites.” he said. “Like anything else in politics, to fix this you don’t look for one answer.”

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