The question was of the "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" variety -- "Who signs where it says 'voter's signature?' "
Unfortunately, the question phoned into city election administrator Barbara E. Jackson came from an election judge, who presumably would know better.
"You want people to be a little more alert than that," Ms. Jackson said of the early-morning call. "That freaked me out."
The judge was fired, and Ms. Jackson went back to running an exasperating election, Baltimore's first since the hotly disputed gubernatorial balloting in November that fixed a glaring spotlight on every aspect of the city election apparatus.
The office changed some procedures and spent more time training its 2,300 election day judges, but yesterday's performance was marred by a series of problems, most small but many aggravating.
One polling place, in the 3800 block of Erdman Ave., didn't open until 8 a.m., an hour late, because not enough election judges showed up. At others, slow judges caused long lines.
In addition to the confused West Baltimore judge, two others were dismissed early in the day for incompetence, Ms. Jackson said.
And across the city, judges and voters wrestled with hundreds ** of problems caused by the new federal "motor voter" law.
In some cases, for example, voters who had registered their cars at addresses outside the city limits -- presumably to take advantage of lower insurance rates -- discovered that the Motor Vehicle Administration had forwarded the new addresses to the city election board, making them ineligible to vote in Baltimore.
The lingering criticism from last year's losing Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, seemed to echo through the election office yesterday. Meeting throughout the day, the five-member board tape-recorded all of its decisions on not one but two recorders. For her part, Ms. Jackson was never far from one of two of her personal attorneys.
In the middle of everything, more than a dozen members and staff from a gubernatorial task force -- including a former U.S. attorney and several state legislators -- descended on the slightly chaotic election office to watch things unfold.
The task force later watched polling-place activity at sites in Guilford and Charles Village.
George Beall, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland who heads the task force, applauded the city election office for tightening up some of its procedures and added, "You don't appreciate the human problems that are encountered."
At the polls, at least one potentially embarrassing mistake was caught.
Martin O'Malley, seeking re-election to the City Council, said his wife, Katie, was nearly turned away from a voting booth in the 27th Ward, in Lauraville, when polling officials couldn't find her name on a voter registration list.
After forcing Ms. O'Malley -- who also is the daughter of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. -- to fill out an affidavit attesting to her identity, poll workers finally found her name on their list.
Ms. Jackson said some mistakes are going to happen when an election is run by more than 2,000 election judges with only minimal training.
"We take six months or a year to prepare for this," Ms. Jackson said. "Then we have to turn it over to election judges."
At a firehouse in the 4500 block of Harford Road, voters had difficulty even moving in an overcrowded ambulance garage, which yesterday housed a second precinct for the first time. Voters waited for as long as 45 minutes, and the registration lists omitted at least a dozen names of people who were allowed to cast ballots only after filling out temporary registration forms.
"We had problems with the church that housed the precinct before, so we moved in here," said Linda Knott, Republican chief judge for one of the two precincts. "But this is too difficult. Next time, we need a bigger place."