Baltimore voters were trickling to the polls today to choose between Democratic and Republican candidates running for mayor, council president, comptroller and the City Council in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th districts.
Democratic candidates were running without opposition in the 2nd and 4th councilmanic districts.
As forecast, the low-profile and no-profile contests were drawing few voters. Elections officials said only 5 percent of the eligible voters had cast ballots in the first four hours, the slowest pace ever for a mayoral election in Baltimore.
The turnout was seen headed for an 8 p.m. finish at 30 percent of the eligible voters, or less. Registration rolls showed 283,140 registered Democrats, 30,721 Republicans, and 12,550 independents eligible to vote.
Only five people cast ballots in the first two hours of balloting at the Maryland Educational Opportunities Center in West Baltimore.
There were no electioneers outside the building. Inside, Evelyn Henson, a campaign worker for incumbent Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, lamented, "I might as well go home."
At Mergenthaler Vocational/Technical High School in northeast Baltimore, campaign workers, mostly for the Democratic candidates, huddled to stay warm -- and to keep each other company.
"We expect more voters as the day goes on," Andrea Roberts, a Schmoke campaign worker. "We're pretty confident that either way the mayor is going to win."
Voting was more brisk at Public School 60 at Gwynns Falls Parkway and Dukeland Street, and at Hilton Elementary School, Hilton and Carlisle streets, but no waiting.
After 2 hours and 45 minutes, only 66 people had come to Chinquapin Middle School, a big polling place in the 3rd District.
The voters also were deciding the fate of Question L, a referendum that could dramatically alter the city's political landscape. If approved by the voters, Question L would create 18 single-member council districts. Currently, there are six three-member districts.
"There is nothing on the ballot that has created any kind of excitement and that's what is needed to bring people out," said Barbara E. Jackson, administrator for the city Board of Elections Supervisors. She forecast a 30 percent turnout.
It has been more than 50 years since a Republican held a City Council seat. The GOP won its last citywide election in 1963 when Theodore R. McKeldin was elected mayor and Hyman A. Pressman won the comptroller's race. Pressman was defeated in the Democratic primary election that year and ran as a Republican in the general election. He switched back to the Democratic Party shortly after the election.
Proponents of Question L say its passage would make council members more accountable to their constituents. The city GOP led the petition drive to get Question L on the ballot. The referendum also had the backing of the city branch of the NAACP.
The idea struck a responsive chord in some sections.
In predominantly white Hamilton, Robert and Emma Jackson, a retired couple from Bayonne Street,were troubled by the racial motivation for recent council redistricting.
"It's trying to pit black against white," Mr. Jackson said. They were voting for Question L to get more attention for their needs.
The Jacksons were two of 13 people voted in the first hour and 45 minutes at the Hamilton library.
Question L was opposed by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Schmoke.
Clarke said she opposed Question L because it would once again force the City Council to go through the process of drawing council district lines -- an exercise that proved to be racially divisive last spring.
Schmoke said any move to change the City Council should come from a commission now reviewing the City Charter.
City GOP Chairman David R. Blumberg said he was optimistic voters would approve Question L.
But Jackson said voters don't appear to be excited by the debate.
The race for mayor pitted one-term incumbent Schmoke against longtime GOP stalwart Samuel A. Culotta. Culotta had not won a mayoral campaign in four tries.
Not even a mayoral debate between Schmoke and Culotta added any drama to the campaign.
The mayor ran a low-key campaign with a few appearances in the evenings and on weekends.
Culotta conducted campaign swings through the city's markets, but was not successful in taking the campaign to the mayor's doorstep.
In 1987, after Schmoke edged out then-Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns in a bitter primary, Culotta gathered just 21 percent of the vote against Schmoke in the general election.
At St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hamilton, Gloria Heddinger was among the 11 voters who cast ballots in the first hour. She remained undecided about the mayor's race as she entered the polls.
"I'm betwixt and between," she said. She didn't know the Republican Culotta well, and didn't think Schmoke had done a great job.
For Bill Baum, a retiree voting at Hazelwood Elementary School, there was frustration, but no doubt about who to vote for.