Not a creature was stirring ... Election: In small precincts, it's a lonely vigil waiting for no-show voters.

September 16, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Officer Sal Rivieri just shook his head as he made his midday check of the voting tallies at Baltimore's Lombard Middle School, home to the 3rd Ward's 1st and 4th precincts.

At 10:30 a.m. the 4th Precinct had recorded four votes. Now, two hours later -- 5 1/2 after the polls opened -- there were still only four votes. What was going on, he wondered. Where were the people?

"This precinct doesn't have but so many voters," said Wartruler Wilson, 47, a poll worker sitting at a desk in one of the school's hallways.

Most of the precinct is filled with businesses along E. Baltimore Street, between Central Avenue and Broadway. Wilson, who was working her sixth election at the precinct, said about 45 people were registered for yesterday's primary. During the last gubernatorial primary, 11 people voted in the precinct -- one of the lowest turnouts in the city.

Yesterday, the only signs of an election were the posters outside the middle school in the 1600 block of E. Lombard Street and the campaign workers handing out fliers a safe distance from the front door.

Inside, Wilson and her three colleagues sat and waited. The morning was agonizingly slow, quiet, except for their voices. They were here around 6 a.m. to set up the machines. Some took the day off from work. Some were here for the civic duty, and the $100 paycheck.

They took their seats midway down the long, locker-lined hallway where industrial pipes are suspended from the ceiling. And they waited. And waited. The day grew hot. They passed the time in small talk about movies and neighbors, played a hand-held video poker game.

Had the Maytag repairman stopped by, he would have found kindred spirits. He knows what it's like to sit and wait. Calls to action were rare yesterday morning for the women assigned to the 3rd Ward's 4th Precinct. A single voter was an event, cause for them to say in unison, "Thank you for coming out, sir."

"I would like to have the crowds," Wilson said during the long, empty stretch. "It makes the time move faster."

The scene was a bit brisker at the 1st Precinct, around the corner and down another hallway. It pulls most of its voters from the Perkins Homes community on the other side of Pratt Street.

"This one is crowded, the 1st Precinct, the 3rd Ward. We are swamped," said Shirley Chapple-Wright, pride in her voice as she turned her attention to another voter. "Can I see your voter's card? It's not that I don't believe you. It's just procedure."

Chapple-Wright, 43, is the chief judge for the precinct. She said she is here for the challenge of making sure the day runs smoothly and to lend democracy a hand.

"I like to see people come out and vote, that's encouraging," she said.

The precinct had 42 recorded votes by Rivieri's 10: 30 a.m. check. Two hours later, the number was up to 67.

"You expect it to be slow in the morning before people go to work," said Ollie Coleman, 54, who was working his first election. "It's a little slow right now. The majority come through after work."

One thing was certain at both precincts, voting is minimal during midafternoon.

"They're not going to miss 'The Young and the Restless,' " said Alice Dubose, 72, a poll worker at the 1st Precinct table. "That's the only one I watch. The others have too much going on."

"I wish someone would look at 'The Young and the Restless' to let me know what was happening," said Wilson, as the time dragged.

The afternoon slowdown starts with that soap opera. Then comes Jerry Springer, Oprah. By the time the evening news comes on, people head to the voting booths and join those on their way home from work. Chapple-Wright has seen the crowds before.

For the women of the 4th Precinct, it was bad enough to know a steady stream of people were voting around the hall. But people constantly asked them for directions to a meeting at the school. People approached the table, but none came to vote.

"See, we would be pumping if all those people were coming here to vote," Sheila Farmer said as one group headed down the hall.

"We sure would," said Gresham Somerville, who sees her job as a civic duty. Someone has to be here to take the vote, even if only one person comes to the table.

"I always felt that people years ago had such a hard time voting," she said. "It really bothers me when people don't take advantage of voting. People in the South had such a hard time. That's why I think it's my civic duty."

And so she, Farmer, Donna Fooks and Wilson sat and waited for the day's fifth voter.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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