The telephones at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics were ringing off the hook yesterday. Not only were precinct and poll workers calling to make last-minute checks about voting and campaigning regulations, but also residents were calling to make sure they were registered, and if not, what to do to make sure they could vote today.
"Ninety percent of the calls are from people who have moved and have not made address changes in writing," said Charmaine Mason, the election board receptionist. "They're getting upset because they are very interested in voting."
It wasn't so very long ago that District residents just weren't very interested in the ballot box. Voting simply wasn't a part of the local tradition, and because the early days of "home rule" were so filled with election foul-ups many people became disenchanted and refused to get involved.
But these days, voter participation in the District continues on an upswing -- an increase of 20 percent during the last presidential election while most states experienced a decline.
Even though today's is an off-year election, the trend is expected to continue. Part of this is because of the controversy over the bottle bill initiative, which, like tuition tax credits, rent control and the Rhodes Tavern initiatives in the past, adds excitement to school board elections.
But a lot more than controversial initiatives have accounted for the District's political coming of age. Thank Jesse Jackson for his voter registration drives and, in a perverse sort of way, Ronald Reagan. Nothing like a bona fide adversary to bring out the troops.
But let's not forget Emmett H. Fremaux Jr., who took over as executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in 1983.
Under Fremaux, the mechanics of the election process now runs so smoothly that residents can, finally, concentrate on the issues and not wonder whether their votes will be counted.
His new ideas have resulted in better training of election personnel and strict supervision of polling places.
These developments have added greatly to the confidence that residents have in the election process. But what has really helped to take the fear and apathy out of District politics is the way Fremaux has included the young people of the city in the process.
Together with the D.C. school system, Fremaux and his staff have developed a "Voters of the Future" program, in which 90,000 students at 168 schools recreate the process of voting during their own student body elections. They have voter registration cards, ballots and use actual voting booths on election day.
The program even includes first graders. So imagine a 6-year-old coming home with an "I voted" sticker, and telling his or her parents how easy it was.
Voting, in Fremaux's view, should be a family affair. He sees people sitting around the dinner table or in their living rooms talking about the issues. But in a city where many adults grew up without being able to cast a vote, there was no such tradition.
That is changing fast. Nowadays, children are writing political speeches at their schools. They are debating the issues with classmates, and asking their parents to help them.
The D.C. schools, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, the League of Women Voters and the Joint Center for Political Studies are just a few of the organizations that continue to work overtime disseminating information about elections trends and issues in this city.
Their hard work is paying off in a big way.
"Participation in the electoral process goes a long way toward educating our population," Fremaux said yesterday. "The more people we get on the rolls, the more information we can get to them. It's a cycle in which participation breeds participation."
It also breeds a kind of affinity for the city, in which interest in community affairs is based on the belief that everybody's opinion counts. And one thing we can be sure of today is that every vote will be counted, and in a timely fashion.