It was a time of lost ballots and long battles, of turmoil and turnover, of the tragicomic sight of a newly empowered government trying to prove itself while blundering the most basic task in democracy: staging elections.

But in the 1970s and early 1980s, while the District suffered its suffrage in plain view of Congress and local media, Mary Rodgers persevered, believing passionately in the importance of the vote and in her commitment to stay until things improved.

Rodgers, 62, has worked as the city's elections administrator since 1976, when the three-member board dumped her boss by reorganizing the office and eliminating his job classification.

Since then she's contemplated quitting "sometimes on an average of once a week."

"No, not really," she continued, her laughter subsiding. "You have to see a job through. You can't run away from the bad times."

The bad times seem to have receded in the last four years, since the current executive director, Emmett Fremaux Jr., arrived from New Orleans.

"During the problems with the board over the years, they only had one Mary Rodgers. They could have used three or four," Fremaux said.

Rodgers, who first worked as a precinct captain in 1960, gave the office a sense of stability while staff and board members came and went. She recalls excitement in the city and lines in the District Building when D.C. residents were first allowed to vote in a presidential election, in 1964. She laments low turnouts.

"It gets very discouraging to me when people here don't vote," she said. "So many black people in the South suffered and died for the right to vote."

In the racially segregated 1940s, Rodgers was denied the right to live on campus at Boston University; she moved into a house operated by the League of Women for Community Service and roomed with another Washingtonian, Reggie Yancey, who later became vice superintendent of the D.C. schools.

Plenty of filing took place at the elections office.

"Well, you don't panic," Rodgers said with a smile, explaining that the city stopped using open trucks to haul ballots to headquarters after two bags fell onto the streets in 1976. Both were recovered intact: one by a city search crew, another by a taxi driver.

During the 1970s, the city tried nine types of voting apparatuses. Once, computer cards swelled from humidity and did not fit into counting devices; another year, malfunctioning machines forced the staff to count ballots by hand, delaying tabulation 12 days. Nonchalant college students hired to sort ballots in the 1976 primary sauntered off the job without finishing, causing a 24-hour delay.

In the 1978 Democratic mayoral primary, candidates sent their own aides to monitor the election; still, tallying machines rejected thousands of ballots and forced a time-consuming recount, in one of the crises Rodgers recalls most clearly.

"Well, you can imagine {candidates} Marion Barry, Sterling Tucker and Walter Washington were a little antsy, to put it mildly," Rodgers said. She supervised a counting staff of more than 100, who worked days, nights and weekends.

Once, she was visited by the District Building nurse. "I saw her and said, 'What are you doing here? It's Saturday.' She said, 'I came down to take your pressure,' " Rodgers recalled. "I thought that was real sweet. I passed."

Albert Beveridge III, a board member during the troubled early 1980s, said "her great strength is her ability to deal with people."

And Yancey, who after her retirement joined the city's pool of about 1,500 poll workers, said that Rodgers knows each by name, and shows a "wonderful interaction" with all.

She also remembers many a name that appeared on write-in ballots over the years, including her favorite, Ebeneezer Pennysqueezer. After the results came in on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat that had no candidates, she wrote to a woman with two write-in votes, "telling her that she had been declared the winner. She told me that when she and her daughter went to vote, they decided to write in her name as a joke. I said 'Honey, the joke's on you.' "

And, as democracy permits, "we have all manner of people" as candidates, Rodgers said. One year, she disallowed the request of a school board hopeful to identify himself on the ballot as "God's Poet." During an elections board mayoral hearing, a candidate displeased with his place on the ballot bashed a foe's aide over the head with a metal chair.

While recounting many tales, Rodgers stops midsentence for a private chuckle. But one still makes her eyes narrow: the case of a radio reporter who tried unsuccessfully to register her dog to highlight flaws in the city's registration system. "We were very resentful," Rodgers said.

Troubles peaked in 1983, when the D.C. Council considered canceling a school board election to give the elections board time to become functional. Within months, the city hired Fremaux and held the election. It has since enjoyed rather routine, successful voting operations.

Fremaux credits Rodgers with extensive knowledge of the city and the elections process. "When you have someone like that, you don't even realize how many things they do," he said.

But for Rodgers, who has a daughter in Connecticut, a son and a daughter who work for the District, three grandchildren, many retired friends and a yen to travel, "20 years is enough." She will retire after the 1988 election.

As she nears retirement, she reveals no hidden formulas for withstanding pressure, saying simply, "The best I can tell you is I always figured it would work out."