It was 7:30 a.m. on election day, the peak of the traditional early rush period at the polls, and several full squads of last-minute campaigners had maneuvered themselves into a long, bristling phalarx outside Montgomery County's voting station at Thomas W. Pyle Junior High School.
Democratic precinct chairman stood next to Republican precinct chairman, who stood next to three different Democratic candidates, a candidates's wife, two school board literature centers, and at least a half dozen poll volunteers.
A whirlwind of admonitions, greetings, pamphlets and people should have been sweeping along the narrow sidewalk leading to the school door. Instead there were depressed and bitter mutters. The hundreds of voters the poll workers had expected to be there simply had not shown up.
"I can't believe that there's nobody standing in line out here," said one poll worker.
"It's bad," said Ester Kominers, the Democratic precinct chairman and a party regular. "It's the worst turnout I've seen in a long time."
"Maybe they all overslept this time and are planning to come in later," said Tom McEwan, the Republican precinct captain.
At length, a voter appeared. The crowd of campaigners collectively grabbed at literature and descended on the man. But it was no use. The man crossed his arms, shook his head, and walked firmly toward the polls, his decisions made.
Ellen Atlas, the deputy Democratic precinct chairman, put down her prepared sample ballots and looked at them balefully. "What in the world are we going to do with all of this stuff?" she said. "I hope at least that it's biodegradable."
Atlas and other experienced workers and election officials of the highly active Bethesda precinct in the 16th Legislative District expected yesterday that - as is usual even in primaries - hundreds of voters would descend on Pyle Junior High yesterday morning as the polls opened.
But instead of the long line that usually greets the dawn of an election day in this precinct, only 13 voters - including three relatives of precinct captains - waited as the polls opened yesterday morning. And only a few showed up in the hours afterward.
"I've worked the polls here for 14 years, and this is the worst turnout I've seen," said election judge Betty Buckingham. "We have people who take pride in coming here first - in being the first in line. We never even saw them."
By noon yesterday, as voting lagged halfway between the morning and evening rushes, only 290 of Precinct 715's approximately 2,600 registered voters had appeared at the polls.
Other precincts fared even worse. At Newport Middle School in Kensington, only 67 of about 1,800 registered voters arrived during the morning rush period. In precinct 5-3 in northern Silver Spring, only 225 of 2,100 on the voting rolls from both parties turned up by 10:30.
The voters who did arrive probably received more attention during their 50-yard walks to the polls than they ever would have wanted. Frantic poll workers and candidates spotted their prey from a distance, then, with a collective grab at the literature tables, descended.
"Remember Nancy Wiecking!"
"Have you picked your school board candidates?"
"Hi, I'm Joe Gebhardt, running for State Senate."
"Let me just say hello, I'm Mike Barnes, running for Congress."
"Here's your sample Republican ballot."
"Here's your sample Democratic ballot."
Voter's reactions to the pamphlet-and-handshake assaults clearly divided them into two groups. Some stamped by the campaigners, oblivious or even irritated by the onslaught. Their research was already. "My wife and I spent the weekend going over all the material that had been dropped off at the house," one man said. "We're not great judges but we know what we're doing."
But dozens of other voters accepted the premarked "sample ballots" of endorsement groups or precinct chairman and carried them into the booths. Shortly after the polls opened at Pyle, one man, apparently confused by an excess of advice, left his booth to visit a trash can, then walked back with his one remaining brochure firmly in hand.
But more frustrating to election officials than the uninspired voters were the thousands of people who apparently were deciding not to vote.
"So here we give them, on a golden platter, the opportunity to put the people they want on the ballot," said one judge. "And who shows up? A handful. Not even a handful. A thimbleful."