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Smooth Sailing Despite Large Voter Turnout

By Olin Ericksen and Phil Wayne

November 2 -- It's 10:20 a.m. on Election Day in Santa Monica and, in spite of what is shaping up to be a huge voter turnout, City Clerk Maria Stewart describes her office as "eerily, eerily calm."

Having already visited roughly half a dozen polling sites, Stewart sits in her quiet office where, at least for the moment, no calls are coming in.

"Right now it's really calm -- too calm for me," Stewart says.

Inside foyer of City Hall, which doubled as a polling place.( Photo by Phil Wayne)

So far things are going smoothly and the "Inka Vote" system, in which voters use paint pens to make black marks on their ballots, appears to be working well.

"We're not getting any questions or calls or complaints about that," Stewart says.

Stewart and her staff of six will strive to maintain an efficient voting process throughout the day. She expects to visit roughly half of the 43 polling sites before her 12-hour stint is done.

* * *

At 7 a.m. a line nearly 70 voters long awaits poll workers at the Ocean Park Moose Lodge, which serves as a polling station for three Ocean Park precincts.

These voters are among the first in Santa Monica to cast their ballots in an election that will decide who will govern everything from the City Council to the White House.

Callers contact likely Kerry-Edwards voters in swing states at a "MoveOn" PAC phone banking operation in the backyard north of Montana. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

With so much at stake, Poll Inspector Peter Sharma says he is impressed, but not surprised, by the turnout, which he describes as high into the late afternoon.

"This is the most people I've seen in an American election in my memory," says Sharma, an independent consultant who has worked polls in several states and Canada for nearly 25 years. "The line curved around the corner and out onto the alley."

There is a "happy," even "giddy," mood among voters, who chatted and enjoyed free coffee supplied to the early risers waiting for the doors to open by the nearby Talking Stick café, Sharma says.

Once inside, under the seemingly watchful eyes of a mounted moose head, nearly two dozen volunteers usher voters into the awaiting booths, deliberately placed along the walls, rather than back-to-back, in order to prevent any voter intimidation.

"I'm very serious about people being able to vote" says Sharma, who not only realigned the booths, but also asked some voters to turn shirts that advocated a candidate inside out.

Sharma even taped over political bumper stickers on cars within 100 feet of the polling place to avoid illegal electioneering, a hot topic during the contested race for President.

"While I agree with some of the messages sometimes, I'm in a position where I have to make sure that people can cast their votes free of pressure," says Sharma, citing the voter controversies brewing in the battleground states of Ohio and Florida.

While the early morning rush meant long waits, by noon, the entire process takes some 20 minutes, Sharma says.

Still, several local voters say that is the longest they have ever waited to cast their ballot.

Voters at the Memorial Park polling place wait in line at 11:00am.( Photo by Phil Wayne)

"Well it's certainly a longer line than I've seen before," says resident Lois Lambert. "There weren't any problems, just more people and lots of decisions to make."

While State and national elections drew Lambert to the polls, voting companion Richard Cohn says California initiatives were on his mind.

"In some respects, my vote in the national election is not too significant, but I am interested in the propositions, especially involving gaming," Cohn said.

* * *

The busy scene at the Moose Lodge is repeated at polling places across the City Tuesday.

At 9:30 a.m. a line of more than 50 voters snakes out the door and down the sidewalk at St. Paul's Lutheran Church at Lincoln Boulevard and Washington Avenue.

Armed with coffee, voter information booklets and newspapers, people wait up to an hour to cast their votes. By 2:30 p.m., poll workers estimate that voter turnout has already reached 80 percent for the two Wilshire/Montana precincts voting at St. Paul's.

The day is running smoothly, however, and morale is high for both voters and workers, the poll workers say.

"People seem happy," says poll worker Beverly Gordon. "They're willing to wait because they know it's important. I've been really pleased with the turnout."

While there doesn't seem to be any serious difficulties with the Inka-vote system, a few voters comment that they had to mark their ballots multiple times to make complete marks.

Across town, at a polling place at Joselyn Park on Kensington Road, which serves two Ocean Park precincts, voters have to wait 15 to 20 minutes to cast ballots between 11 a.m. and noon -- considered the slow voting period of the day.

Those who timed their visit to the polls to avoid the hectic peak hours of early morning and late afternoon are surprised by the large turnout. Voting is orderly, however, and poll workers offer voters cookies after they cast their ballots.

Several voters arrive with children in tow, adding to a family atmosphere. The lengthy ballot appears burdensome to some, who take longer than usual to fill out their ballots, resulting in a slow-moving line.

* * *

The morning has been quiet when the City Clerk receives a call at 11 a.m.

"Most of our calls will be for whether people are electioneering or [because] there are signs found illegally, too close to the polling place," Stewart says.

But this complaint -- from a polling place at Memorial Park on 14th Street and Olympic Boulevard -- is more benign.

"There may not be enough poll workers" for the site, said Stewart, as she arrives with assistant clerk, Beth Sanchez, to see what, if anything, needs to be done to rectify the situation.

Inside, they find the problem has already been solved. Two voters, Tony Smith and Shari Powell, have agreed to work as paid volunteers for the day, filling out the worker roll. Obviously pleased, Stewart smiles broadly at the turn of events.

From left: Beth Sanchez, assistant to City Clerk, Shari Powell, an on-the-spot volunteer and City Clerk Maria Stewart. ( Photo by Phil Wayne)

It is not uncommon for a polling place worker to call in sick, and staffing shortages do occur. Although Stewart can call the County to request more help at a polling location, on-site workers will sometimes simply enlist the aid of willing voters.

Powell, one of the on-the-spot volunteers, explains, "I was first in line and I was asked to help." She agreed, calling it "my pleasure."

While anything can happen as the day progresses, as of noon, Maria Stewart can breathe easy. Things are going "very smoothly."

Staff writers Susan Reines and Cindy Frazier contributed to this report

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