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Late voters reverse low turnout

Yesterday's primary was billed as an oddball election, and it lived up to predictions. The only primary in city history to be held more than a year before the general election was marked by an initial low turnout, no-show poll workers, trickery and finger-pointing.

It was a luminous September day, perfect voting weather. But it took a final-hours surge - after a public plea by the city election administrator - to boost turnout numbers to 35 percent.

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"I got on the television and on the radio, and I pleaded with the people to come out because I was disappointed with the low turnout," said Barbara E. Jackson, the city's chief of elections. "After 5 o'clock, people came out. They left work and went to the polls, which is good."

Shortly after the polls opened, Jackson was predicting a total as low as 28 percent. The final turnout was roughly in line with that of the 1999 city primary.

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Still, throughout the day, many election workers expressed frustration at empty voting halls.

"Where are they?" asked Ahmed Minor, a volunteer for City Council president candidate Catherine E. Pugh. Minor would have been handing out Pugh leaflets at a Charles Village polling place, if only there had been any voters to take them. "This stinks. It really does."

Residents blamed the low-key mood on the long gap between the primary and general elections; confusion over the city's new council districts, which replaced six large districts with 14 small ones; the lack of a hotly contested race at the top of the ticket; and relative contentment with the track records of incumbent Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon.

"There is not a lot of enthusiasm because it's a foregone conclusion that the mayor's race is going to end with O'Malley's nomination," said the Rev. William Au, 54, pastor of SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church, as he voted in Charles Village. "It's not even a race to most people."

At Johnston Square Elementary School in East Baltimore, Peggy Winder, a 67-year-old school crossing guard working the polls for Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said apathetic voters were making a statement by not showing up:

"People don't want to vote. They've lost faith in everything. They believe in their hearts it's not going to do any good."

At 1:30 yesterday afternoon, poll workers far outnumbered voters at Grace United Methodist Church, at Charles Street and Northern Parkway. City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who was unopposed on the ballot, walked down a long, empty corridor to cast her vote.

"Oh," Pratt said, "when the governor was running last fall, this hallway was packed with people waiting in line."

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Bill Henry, 4th District Council candidate, said two dozen voters were waiting at Grace United Methodist at 7 a.m. But problems with the machines delayed the polls' opening until about 7:20, and by then some voters had drifted away.

Voting was delayed at several polling places because of no-show election judges. At two sites, none of four judges who had promised to appear did so.

The city Board of Elections dispatched Wayne Jones to replace missing election judges at Margaret Brent Elementary School on East 26th Street. The first vote was not cast in the school gym until 8:30 a.m.

"This is important, know what I mean?" said Jones, a Democratic judge. "It's not like you can blow it off."

Even on a such a quiet day, yesterday's election wasn't without a few political shenanigans.

Early in the morning, people outside some polls began handing out leaflets advertising "the official Believe ballot."

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The black leaflet bore the distinctive white lettering of the city's "Believe" promotional campaign; it appeared to endorse O'Malley for mayor and Pugh for council president.

The third endorsement varied depending on where the leaflet was distributed: in the 10th District, it advocated Nicole Pastore-Klein; in the 4th District, Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

But contrary to the leaflet's claims, O'Malley and Pugh were not running on the same slate. In fact, O'Malley endorsed Pugh's opponent, City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Peter O'Malley, the mayor's brother and campaign manager, insisted that the "Believe" promotional team had nothing to do with the leaflets. He called the Pugh campaign about 11 a.m. to complain.

"I don't know anything about it. We disavow it," said Pugh's campaign manager, Patrick Scott.

"I had nothing to do with it. It's an old campaign trick," Pugh said. "It's been amazing to me how vicious people have been in this campaign."

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"This is the only ballot I authorized," she said, handing a reporter a flier that listed her name and the words, "Pugh will do it with integrity and honesty."

Ross Goldstein, director of the campaign finance division at the state Board of Elections, said the Believe Baltimore PAC was registered Sept. 2 and will not have to file a financial report until January. Goldstein said such a committee can endorse anyone it chooses.

One of the committee's listed officers, Elesia Bower, described herself as an 18-year-old recent graduate of Dulaney High School in Timonium. She said she was not authorized to say much about her group, but she acknowledged she was distributing the controversial leaflets.

At some polling places, out-of-towners seemed more enthusiastic than Baltimoreans were.

As voters arrived at the polls in Cherry Hill, a loudspeaker greeted them with a message that urged them to vote for 10th District council candidate Charlie Metz. The loudspeaker sat atop a white Volvo station wagon with New York license plates. A red Volkswagen Jetta with Vermont license plates brought other Metz supporters to work the polls.

In spite of the day's oddities, some voters came to the polls enthusiastically. For politically savvy 16- and 17-year-olds who will be 18 when the general election is finally held next November, yesterday was a historic opportunity to vote.

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Like more experienced voters, Nathan Paluzzi, 17, said he had trouble figuring out which City Council district took in his Erdman Avenue home and was undecided about some races.

"I've done research, and I'm still trying to figure out who to vote for," said Paluzzi, a visual arts student at the School for the Arts, just before going to the polls with his mother. "I just think it's cool that I get the chance to vote."

Keyauana Anderson, 24, a food services worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said she voted yesterday for the first time: "Because I have a job, now I see the vote really counts."

Sun staff writers Doug Donovan, Reginald Fields, Tom Pelton, Ivan Penn, Eric Siegel, Jamie Stiehm, Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Laurie Willis and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.


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