City leaders say it will take voter mobilization and education, not just registration to boost voter turnout for Baltimore’s General Election.

Interest in the city’s elected offices is at a record low. Many Baltimore area pundits and residents have reasoned why—minimal election coverage, few contested races, not enough captivating candidates, lack of confidence in government and other factors.

Now Black community leaders are speaking out about where the city must go from here to reverse the spiraling trend.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, says activists must educate the electorate about the importance and impact of their vote.

“People don’t think they have a voice and don’t think their one vote will make a difference but a candidate can lose by one vote,” she said. “And if they were your candidate, you lost them that seat.”

The burden is on city community groups and candidates, she said, to engage voters after registering them.

“Candidates should register voters as they are campaigning and encourage them to come out,” she said.

For her part, Hill-Aston has appointed a chair to head the Baltimore NAACP’s 2012 ‘Get Out the Vote’ campaign, which will energize voters for the 2012 presidential elections.

She adds that activist groups must knock on doors and hold rallies, town hall meetings and voter gatherings at churches and schools.

But according to the Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, president of Baltimore’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in order to reach a younger audience, voter support groups must make voter registration and political conversations more exciting.

“The process is getting stale,” he said. “We have to bring registration back to the 21st century.”

He says during the era of the Mitchell family, leaders held concerts, cookouts and parties to get out the vote.

“We were able to go out there and physically take voter registration to the people. We met them where they were,” he explained.

Witherspoon asserts that community leaders must get more creative about linking the electorate to groups that can provide more information about the process and help get them “activated.”

“We have people dealing with unemployment, foreclosures–people are going through it so we have to bring the message to them,” he said. “We are fighting for the hearts and minds of people.”
Many community leaders add that voter turnout is low because of the absence of political powerhouses that the Black community has historically come out in droves to support, such as the Mitchells.

Witherspoon and Marvin “Doc” Cheatham of the National Action Network, agree that the “super voter” generation that helped elect the family is dying off, and the emerging generation “hasn’t established the value of voting yet.”
“And young folks have just not established it; they haven’t seen it. They see too many leaders doing the wrong thing,” said Cheatham.

He said he’s not optimistic about participation in the General Election.

While increasing voter turnout is not a “one-two-three problem” Cheatham said, “Everyone must do a better job.”

Many activists agree that citizens should feel obligated to exercise their right to vote, especially African Americans.

“Our ancestors died so we can have that right,” said Witherspoon. “Now it seems their deaths are in vain.”

Cheatham and the National Action Network will host a “Voter Convocation” at New Shiloh Baptist Church on Oct. 11 to discuss countering apathy and increasing voter turnout. Expert panelists will include former mayors Kurt Schmoke and Sheila Dixon, as well as campaign consultant and attorney Larry Gibson.


Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO