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It’s around noon on Election Dayyou know, this past Tuesdayand Evelyn Baylor has fallen asleep. She munched her way through cold fried chicken around 10:30, and she put away a box of Fiddle Faddle around 11. Now the 73-year-old has plunged into the resulting food coma.
Trouble is, Baylor is manning the ballot box at Precinct 22, and Voter No. 45 is ready to deposit her ballot.
Baylor finally stirs, smiles, and inserts the ballot. No. 45 thanks her and returns to her burgundy Mercury Lynx, which has an old “I Voted!” sticker on the dash. “Why’d I vote? I guess I voted this time like every timebecause you’re supposed to,” she mumbles as she drives away.
In recent years, Washington has had its share of pathetic elections. The May 1996 presidential primary turned up only about 9 percent of registered voters. But today is a different ballgame altogether. The citywide turnout is a mere 5.3 percent, and Precinct 22 pulls in just 3.8 percent of its 2,600 registered votersor fewer than eight voters per hour. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Today, even those who take the trouble to vote seem apathetic. Downright embarrassed, in fact:
“Yeah, it was a real stretch to come here,” says a chagrined Woody Richards, a 31-year-old who works at a nonprofit. “I walked a long way, too.”
It’s not hard to account for Richards’ attitude. The election itself is as boring as pre-Tiger Woods golf and as pointless as a Bulgarian election circa 1960. Virtually nothing is at stake: Linda Cropp, the chairperson of the D.C. Council, is running to become chairperson of the D.C. Council for another 18 months, at which point she or another interchangeable council veteran will continue in the job. (The council, you will recall, is the 13-member body that once served as the legislative branch of the D.C. government but now couldn’t vote to make lima beans the Official Legume without control board approval.)
Cropp herself offers no surprises: She was first elected to the council seven years ago, and she has held the chair since March, when David Clarke moved on to block reform on the great council in the sky. The only time she makes the news, it seems, is Election Day. Her only opponent is Mary Martin, a 45-year-old socialist who campaigned for the job in Virginia, where she works at National Airport.
So I actually don’t blame Baylor for snoozing. I envy her.
I have come to Precinct 22my precinct, which stretches from Vermont Avenue in the east to 16th Street in the west, along a narrow band that includes the bustling U Street corridorto watch democracy in action. I will be at Garnet-Patterson Middle School for 13 hours, from the polls’ opening at 7 a.m. until Precinct Capt. Joe Swider closes up at 8 p.m.
This is what happens when they hold an election and no one comes:
“That was probably the morning rush,” Swider tells me around 7:20 a.m., already wiping sweat from his thick brow. Nine people have voted, including me and some of the other polling-place workers.
Swider is assisted by no fewer than six others, each of whom will receive $75 for his or her service today (Swider gets $125). A student who needs the cash, Swider, 28, oversees the goings-on with the adolescent authority of someone who’s never done a job before. He enforces the no-electioneering-within-50-feet rule with particular relish, even counting reporting, somehow, as “electioneering.”
“So I can’t speak to voters until they pass this mark?” I ask incredulously.
“That’s the rule.”
Swider and I are standing within the forbidden zone. “So maybe I shouldn’t even be talking to you here,” I say.
Expressionlessly, Swider actually walks the 50 feet past the sign and waits for me.
“I was kidding,” I say. No use.
Swider has an even harder time with Lozzie York, who arrives at 7:30 or so to campaign for Cropp until noon. She’s a large, friendly 69-year-old who has lived in D.C. for 50 years.
“I don’t know what this is about,” York mutters through a mouthful of teeth and saliva. She kicks the “No Electioneering Beyond This Point” sign down a few feet. “They ain’t never put this sign down this far. I been doin’ this for 20 years, and I ain’t never seen such a thing.”
She ignores the sign and sets up the green folding chair she borrowed from a friend about 10 feet from the door.
Swider and York are so different that their mere proximity seems combustible. Swider is a squat chemistry grad student, Dupont Circle resident, and ARTNews reader. North Carolina native York calls him “the little one,” as in, “Is the little one goin’ to tell me to move again?”
Yep. An argument ensues, voices are raised, numbered regulations are produced, and York moves. “Well, ain’t no way I’m running down those folks,” she says, watching a voter amble inside.
10 a.m. York’s shadow is shorter on the dingy pavement outside Garnet-Patterson. The metal “Precinct 22” sign, hung carelessly from the chain-link fence surrounding the school, blows in the breeze. I have met 20 voters so far, and 15 of them say they know Cropp personally: “I been knowing Linda and [her husband] Dwight for years,” says 80-year-old Arthur Thorogood. Cleopatra Scott, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, also knows her “real well,” and knows she’s going to win. Later, I meet a former boss of Cropp’s from her days as a school counselor.
And so on. If Washington ever seems like a large town, hang out at a voting station. The Yorks and the Scotts and the Chases all know one anotherknow their addresses, their husbands’ names, their family histories.
By this point, I’ve also figured out that most voters don’t have much to do: Quentin Rankin was gardening this morning. Thorogood will take a nap later. Scott will go home to make phone calls. I meet seven unemployed men, three housewives, innumerable retirees, and few working people.
Many of the seniors are looking for midday companionship. “When you get older, you feel that you aren’t functioning, that you aren’t a part of things any longer,” says 87-year-old Mary Chase, in a voice that breaks my heart. “I used to go out every night.”
Noon. York packs up. I ask if the Cropp campaign will pay her. “Sometimes,” she answers cryptically. By my reckoning, she has greeted no one today whom she didn’t already know. In a one-party system like the District’s, I suppose elections can, at least, be an occasion to catch up with friends. But if I were Cropp, I wouldn’t pay York more than the free roast-beef-and-American-on-onion-roll that a fellow Croppite brought to her. All she did was gab with friends.
Peggy Haggerty takes her place, and she works no harder. She immigrated from Honduras 25 years ago and fell in love with D.C. politics. She says she was placed in this precinct to work the Hispanic vote, but I meet no Hispanic voters todayjudging from the turnout, our precinct is 80 percent African-Americans and 20 percent gay white men. Still, Haggerty isn’t trying too hard. At one point, a Hispanic woman crosses V Street on her way home. Once she is well outside earshot, Haggerty calls, in English, “Have you voted?”
The woman doesn’t hear her.
“See? She’s ignoring me,” Haggerty complains.
3:20 p.m. Rain washes grime down my face as I uncomfortably digest a dog from Ben’s Chili Bowl, just down U Street. This is election hell, and I pass the time by counting: There are 18 windows in the northern façade of Garnet-Patterson. There is one air-conditioning wall unit. There are four floodlights. In front, there are six columns. There are zero voters.
4 p.m. Inside, the idleness tests the creativity of the poll workers. Darlene is playing with a ruler, and Micah is sound asleep, doubtless dreaming of driving away from the boredom in his 1970 Dodge Dart, which is parked outside. Joe is reading. A RIF’d Board of Education employee, who refuses to give her name, is sharpening pencils.
4:30 p.m. Haggerty has vanished. Two other Cropp workers come by. One of them affixes a sign in front of Koons Roofing Co., across the street. The other shouts, “Nobody there,” with a wave of his arm toward Garnet-Patterson. “Nothing to do here.” They leave, and the Koons people take the sign down.
6 p.m. The buzz in Garnet-Patterson is about whether we will reach 100 voters. If we do, we will hit 3.8 percent turnout. We’re at 83.
More working people are coming to vote nowdo-gooders who vote in every election, no matter what. As 23-year-old Josh Sevin said earlier today, they are people, like him, who “took too many civics classes.”
There’s Michael Schade, for example, a 33-year-old Caroline Street resident who voted for Loose Lips (and is the only voter I meet today, out of 47, who didn’t vote for Cropp). “I just always try to vote,” he says, admitting with a smile that he had nothing better to do except “clip my nails. But you can’t print that.”
7:50 p.m. The home stretch. Voter No. 98 is an insane man who lives on W Street and who wants a beer. Finally, I meet No. 99, the last voter of the day.
She is Bessie Dorsey, and she is 95. Her granddaughter helps her walk. Why did she vote today? “Because I have known [Cropp] all of the time. I knew this child. Her husband spoke at my son’s funeral,” she says, enumerating other connections to the Cropp clan.
I am inspired by Dorsey’s example. She is a person who has only a little life left, and she’s chosen to spend some of it electing a shoo-in candidate to a powerless position. And she no doubt remembers a time when she couldn’t vote.
“You should do it, every time,” Dorsey says, smiling happily. “Every time.”CP