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.
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.
"We take six months or a year to prepare for this," Ms. Jackson said. "Then we have to turn it over to election judges."