Like anxious parents watching a child take its first step, elections officials and business executives hovered expectantly Tuesday night around a whirring gray computer in the Pension Building.
They were watching ballots from the District of Columbia's City Council and Board of Education elections being tallied by a new electronic counting system called Datavote.
At 10:32 p.m., only two hours and 32 minutes after the polls had closed, the Datavote computer disgorged a printout with the final count for the day - a modern record in the brief but problem-plagued history of District elections.
Officials of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics expressed general satisfaction not only with the quick ballot count but also with the election as a whole.
There were few complaints and few delays. More than 51,000 voters went to the polls and used a new punch card ballot - also part of the Datavote system - rather than the traditional pencil-marked paper ballot. Few voters reported any problems.
The Datavote system was used on an experimental basis provided cost-free by the manufacturer - The Datavote division of Diamond International Corp. of San Francisco - in hopes that the city will buy it. The system, including the computer, ballot-punch machines and 2,000 collapsable booths for the voting precincts, costs about $800,000.
Several Datavote executives were on hand for the vote count at the Pension Building Tuesday night side by side with government election workers, shepherding the ballots through the sorting and stacking process and into the computer.
"This is a very important election to us," said Datavote account executive Ed O'Day.
Not only were District elections officials watching the procedures closely but also officials from three Maryland counties - Montgomery, which has already bought the system and Harford and Anne Arundel, which are thinking about it.
While the self-contained computerized system simplifies the makeshift paper ballot-to-electrionic-counter-to-key-punch-operation-to-computer tabulation of past years, some District officials expressed concern that Tuesday's election was not a fair test.
Only two citywide races and one ward level race were involved, they said, while a more complicated general election with eight or 10 separate races would put the system to a tougher test.