Getting Out the Vote in Annapolis’ Underserved Wards

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Community activist and student DaJuan Gay (L); Andre Atkins, president of the Harbour House / Eastport Terrace Tenants' Association; and Shaneka Henson, unopposed Aldermanic candidate for Ward 6 (R), at Action Annapolis' Ward 6 forum, held on September 14, 2017.
Community activist and student DaJuan Gay (L); Andre Atkins, president of the Harbour House / Eastport Terrace Tenants' Association; and Shaneka Henson, unopposed Aldermanic candidate for Ward 6 (R), at Action Annapolis' Ward 6 forum, held on September 14, 2017.

There’s a lot of talk around election time about bringing the voters to the polls, but it’s been Andre Atkins’ hope that bringing the “pols” to the voters will motivate the electorate. This election season, Action Annapolis activists and Atkins, president of the Eastport Terrace Residents’ Association, have made an effort to bring political candidates to community centers. They have hosted several non-partisan forums in wards with historically low voter turnout, including Bywater Mutual Homes and Eastport’s Harbor House/Eastport Terrace. The final mayoral debate will be held on November 1 in the gymnasium of the Eastport Terrace. “I’m hoping people here will listen and I’m hoping the candidates will listen,” said Atkins.

Board of Elections data collected after the September primary seems to show that the strategy is working. Ward 4, where the first forum was held, showed that voter turnout increased by more than 60 percent, from 235 voters in 2013 to 278 in 2017. Ward 6 and Ward 7, where the second and third forums were held, saw respective increases of 29.5 and 33.4 percent.

Action Annapolis organizers were encouraged by what they called a “significant bump” in turnout. “We were focusing on wards nobody else was focusing on,” said Action Annapolis co-founder Kathryn Dahl. “I think it’s important that the community is getting recognition by having an event in a ward that has not traditionally had that kind of attention.”

Atkins, 69, says he was encouraged by the growing political involvement he’s observed lately, after years of stagnation. “I looked at the stats and saw an increase in our ward in voters. I do think that the politicians look at that and remember it later, when they are in office and want to stay in office,” Atkins said. “We have a voice, too.”

The forums, held in mid-September, each drew between 40 and 100 people and were streamed on the Action Annapolis website, as will be the mayoral debate. Previous interactions between mayoral candidates Gavin Buckley (Democrat) and incumbent Mayor Mike Pantelides (Republican) in October have drawn standing-room-only crowds. The November 1 debate will be the final match between the two before November 7 election day.

DaJuan Gay, who lost a bid for city council in the Ward 6 primary, said the effort to bring candidates into the neighborhood gives voters a rare opportunity to meet them and to be heard. “I don’t see anything wrong in grilling them with tough questions,” said Gay, who lives in Eastport. “Sometimes I see them getting the easy pass: getting asked about Market House, or what about downtown? I say, let’s talk about the lives lost under this administration and what plans do they have moving forward to stop it from happening again? What would Gavin do to prevent that from happening if he got elected? It’s time get down to real issues of crime, affordable housing, and lack of healthcare in communities in need. If we continue to overlook those and expect a mayor to address it, he will never address it. As a public, we need to bring light to those issues into this election.”

Gay appreciated having a chance to speak at the Harbor House/Eastport Terrace Community Center when he was running for city council, because it helped him get his message out to a hard-to-reach part of the population. “More often than not, these forums are held downtown in areas that are almost impossible for low-income families to attend. It gives a voice to this community and says to them, ‘Okay, they’re making an attempt to include me,’” he said.

He hopes the mayoral debate will bring in more people, including one particular woman he mentioned. Even though she lived across the street from the community center for 32 years, she told Gay she didn’t walk the 10 feet to the Ward 6 forum because she was “tired of everybody telling her they’ll make a change.” Gay added, “Giving everyone the opportunity is democracy. But it takes a while to build trust.”

For his part, Atkins is hoping that small changes—such as hosting candidate debates in diverse neighborhoods—will encourage people to become more engaged in their communities. “I was politically active my whole life. I grew up in a civil-rights household. But I got away from it for a while because I got discouraged. I’m hoping that through the democratic process, municipality by municipality, people will at least start to listen, and watch,” he said. “I’m also hoping someone is listening to us, and I’m hoping they’re not lying to us.”

You can join Action Annapolis, the Board of Directors of Bywater Mutual Homes, and the Harbor House/Eastport Terrace Resident’s Association for a Mayoral Town Forum with Mayor Mike Pantelides and Candidate Gavin Buckley (D). The forum will be held November 1 from  6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Eastport Community Center/Gym, 1014 President Street, Annapolis.

Mary Grace Gallagher is a member of Action Annapolis

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