Weary District election board members huddled in a cluttered District Building office yesterday afternoon to study shades of color. And unlike their predecessors, what they watched was state-of-the-art computer graphics, not each other's embarrassed faces.

Less than 24 hours after polls closed Tuesday, and with all votes counted and accounted for, Emmett Fremaux Jr., election board executive director, spread multicolor maps of the District across a large conference room table.

The maps, with the help of different color shades, revealed voter participation in each of the city's 140 precincts, as well as the strength of about 80,000 voters' preferences in each of those precincts.

"You've got to understand," Fremaux said, smiling, "we're not at all used to seeing things like this."

Not so long ago, District elections were criticized heavily for the avalanche of confusion they repeatedly created. Ballot boxes fell from trucks, computers malfunctioned, and some registered voters were told they could not cast ballots on Election Day, only to learn weeks later that their names had been placed on another precinct's roster.

In the 1978 Democratic mayoral primary, three weeks elapsed before official election returns were counted.

"Back then," Fremaux said, "the thinking went 'If they can't even run a election, how can they try to run a government.' When I first was interviewing for this job in 1983, I remember thinking to myself, 'God, what a mess.' "

But yesterday's election board meeting was filled with remarks of pride and let-the-record-show-satisfaction sentiments. Results were tallied with only brief, minor hitches, and members already were able to analyze voting patterns in every ward and precinct, thanks to a new computer system.

"The election was a smashing success," said board Chairman Edward Norton, "one handled with complete speed and efficiency."

The new computer system, Fremaux said, establishes boundary files for the city's precincts. As ballots are counted, they are fed into the system. Within hours, what emerges is a multicolor graphic that demonstrates how, and to what extent, voters in every city precinct cast their ballots. By 9 p.m. Tuesday, graphics showed the specific voting patterns of morning voters.

In addition, results from each District election in the last three years were fed into the system this summer, Fremaux said, and color-coded computer graphics from that effort can now be compared to Tuesday's election and those to come.

"This allows us to quickly put voters' behavior into context," Fremaux said. "It's an incredible tool. We're able to make sense of everything, and really help everyone else understand exactly what happened at the polls."