City polling sites show apparently low voter turnout

Londa Pinkston voted for President Obama — twice. But as the polls closed in the District on Tuesday, she sat on her stoop north of Shaw, a few blocks from her Ward 1 polling place, and watched her daughter ride a little pink bike.

She didn’t vote in the primary.

“I worked all day,” said Pinkston, 25, a single mom who is a fundraising coordinator for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. “And I’m not into politics. I don’t follow politicians.”

Pinkston said she enlists the help of her mother — who is into politics — when she does go to the polls. “I normally just go for the Democrats,” she added.

Although there has been much discussion about the thousands of residents being added to the District’s voter rolls in recent years — a byproduct of the city’s dynamism and re­development — Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary proved to be a more mundane exercise in subtraction. The nominee was being chosen by those who showed up, and just as important, by those who didn’t.

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser captured the Democratic nomination for D.C. mayor on Tuesday. PostTV talks to her supporters and Mayor Gray's defenders about what the city would look like under a Bowser administration. (Theresa Poulson and Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

At polling places citywide, there were signs of spotty — and, in some places, abysmal — turnout. Planners estimate the city has more than half a million residents 18 or older, and about 370,000 of them were eligible to vote in Tuesday’s primary, according to the District’s Board of Elections. But only a fraction of them actually cast ballots.

Although the numbers were small, they were enough to lift challenger Muriel Bowser to victory over Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who conceded the race hours into a drawn-out ballot tally. Delays in the count, including problems operating some electronic voting machines, made it impossible to get a complete picture of the turnout as of early Wednesday morning.

In Ward 8 on Election Day, volunteers for Gray and Bowser sat outside Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center, often with no one to talk to but one another. In Glover Park, voters trickled past a dog park and baseball diamond near Vice President Biden’s residence.

“This day is the slowest and lowest I’ve ever had,” said Barbara Gray, captain of the Guy Mason Recreation Center polling place in Ward 3.

A few miles north, on Connecticut Avenue, voting at Edmund Burke School also lagged. Officials at Precinct 34 had been told to expect 1,350 voters, but they fell far short of that, a poll official said. As of 12:40 a.m. Wednesday, the tally was 1,002. Four years ago, then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty netted 1,038 votes there, and then-challenger Gray took 351.

For many who made it to the polls, voting appeared to be more of a solemn, even dour duty rather than an opportunity for inspiration. Some wondered whether the complexities and uncertainties in this year’s race served to tamp down turnout.

Many who did cast ballots said they struggled to make a decision.

“I imagine a lot of people like me have a conflicted sort of feeling about who to vote for. That might discourage them,” said Sandy ­Sorensen, 50, who works on public policy for a church agency. “They just don’t feel strongly about any particular candidate and decide not to vote. They didn’t feel anyone offered enough of a spark.”

She thought seriously about Bowser. “It’s important to have strong African American leadership in Washington. I’m not sure she has the experience,” Soren­sen said. As for the incumbent, “I can’t justify voting for Gray,” she said. “Part of it is the shadow of corruption.”

But she’s also not sure how much of the city’s prosperity and well-being Gray can take credit for, and how much was just good timing. After much reflection, she went with D.C. Council member Tommy Wells. “A big part of it is he’s not taking corporate money,” she said.

For many voters, the election turned on whom they don’t want at the city’s helm.

“I would dearly love to see our present mayor out,” said Judy Blodgett, 70, an editor. “We’re all so tired of the corruption.”

Bob Sussman, 66, a retired government lawyer from Cleveland Park, said he doesn’t have anything against Gray personally but is troubled by allegations of wrongdoing.

“I suppose we should give him the presumption of innocence,” said Sussman, as backers of numerous candidates crowded the few voters heading in to cast their ballots.

“On the other hand, we don’t want to put someone back in who, a few weeks or months down the road, is going to be subject to serious charges.”

Sussman went with Bowser. He has lived in the District for 35 years, and 2010 was a rare year in which he did not vote.

“There’s a real history in the District of Columbia of office­holders cutting corners on ethical and legal requirements, and it has not served the District well,” Sussman said. His vote for Bowser was a vote against Gray, he said. “I didn’t know enough to be enthusiastic. . . . She seemed to be the best alternative.”

Charles Romero, a remodeling contractor who also voted in Precinct 34 and was sitting on his porch a few doors down from the school, was less lawyerly.

“Vince Gray, he’s all in that shaky stuff. He’s all in that trouble. We don’t want that. We want someone with a clean record,” said Romero, who voted for Gray in 2010. “Everybody has something going on in the closet and it all came out.”

Of Bowser, Romero said: “We’ll see what she can do. Let a woman take over for a while.”

It also was an election in which not only people’s choices, but their motives, were questioned.

At the Trinity AME Zion Church in Ward 1, just north of the ever-buzzing Target in Columbia Heights, Gray supporter Josue Salmeron said the sparring between supporters of his candidate and Bowser had become intense in the run-up to voting. “I have friends on both campaigns, and they’re bad-mouthing each other,” he said.

It got so bad, he decided he’d rather just not talk about it.

“It extended beyond saying how someone’s voting,” Salmeron said. Instead, politics became a kind of accusation: “You may be corrupt in your thinking or your interests because of who you’re supporting,” he said, adding that he found fault in the campaign finance system and the corporations that fund it.

The decision to vote — and for whom — was relatively easy for Elinor Patton, 66, a retired cashier from Columbia Heights who liked that Gray kept the city government open during the federal government shutdown in October and how he fought to bring Wal-Mart, and the retailer’s many jobs, to the city.

“He’s been a good mayor,” Patton said. And the accusations that he was involved in an illegal scheme to fund his last campaign are not solid enough to change her mind about him. “I don’t know what really happened. I don’t know if it’s true or not,” Patton said.

Many preferred to sit out.

Hezekiah Smalls, 23, volunteered for 15 hours of Election Day but spent none of that time voting. “I don’t think it was important enough,” Smalls said.

Though he considers his time at the Benning Public Library running the ballot boxes a “service to the community,” he said he prefers to vote only in presidential elections, where, he said, the outcomes have a bigger impact.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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