Center Maryland: Win or lose, it’s tough in the election arena

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on November 14.

By Donald C. Fry

After elections, everybody focuses on the winners. Of course, that makes sense. In the case of the recent statewide elections, they are the people who will frame our state’s public policy and government operations for the next four years.

But because I’ve been on both sides of election outcomes as a former member of the House of Delegates and as a state senator, I know well the personal commitment and emotional risk that comes with running for elected office, win or lose.

So I have a special respect, not just for the winners, but for the hundreds of people around the state who put themselves on a ballot, subjecting themselves to public scrutiny, criticism and ridicule at times. It’s all of the candidates – not just the winners – who provide voters choices, articulate fresh issues, and frame election debate during the fundamental process that constitutes the essence of our democracy.

Consider this. Including primary elections, more than 600 candidates ran for 188 seats in the Maryland General Assembly.

All winners of Maryland’s 2014 statewide and legislative elections deserve congratulations and our best wishes as they strive to make Maryland a better place in the next four years.

Incumbents who lost deserve our sincere thanks for their past services as citizen representatives in government.

But all who run for office deserve credit for putting themselves “in the arena,” as President Theodore Roosevelt once put it in a famous speech he delivered in 1910.

Much credit goes to the person “who is actually in the arena,” Roosevelt said. He celebrated the person “who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

I offer these inspiring thoughts from Roosevelt to all who ran for office in 2014.

But Roosevelt’s speech was not just about elections.  It was about civic duty. In an election, running for office is most certainly exercising civic duty.  But the other side of civic duty is voting. And here is where Maryland’s voting statistics prompt concern.

During the last two decades, voter participation in Maryland elections for governor, other statewide offices and seats in the General Assembly declined from 61 percent of eligible voters in 1994 to 54 percent in the 2010 election.  While final data on the 2014 election are not yet available, published reports cited a precipitous drop in estimated Maryland voter participation to as low as 40 percent on November 4.  The primary election statewide turnout was an even more dismal 22 percent.

Whether or not the exceedingly low 2014 statewide election turnout is an anomaly remains to be seen. But, whatever the reason, voter apathy is not healthy for either a government or the citizens it serves.

“In the last analysis free institutions rest upon the character of citizenship,” said Roosevelt, who professed a “no excuses” approach to exercising civic duty.

As a recovering politician, my own thoughts to those who do not vote are straightforward: Shame on you. The candidates in the arena and your fellow Maryland citizens deserve better.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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