September 30, 2009

It Was Important to Vote in the Primary, Said the Handful Who Did

Inside the gold-tiled assembly room at Public School 108 in the Bronx on Tuesday, 31 poll workers, their blue pens out and white notebooks open, waited for a burst of democracy that never arrived.

For 15 hours, they swapped medical histories and lasagna recipes. They sneaked outside for a smoke, or two. They traded neighborhood gossip and baby photos.

“That’s my great-granddaughter,” explained one poll worker, Margaret Nigro, as she flipped through images on an iPhone, taking advantage of an idle moment, one of many. “She’s 2 ½.”

“Modern technology,” marveled a colleague, Patricia Trainor. “Isn’t that something.”

As for the small matter of voters?

“What voters?” another poll worker, Mary Sicilia, said with a smile. “We don’t need half these people,” she said of her colleagues, who nodded in agreement. “It’s dead. What’s the point?”

Tuesday was an election day in this teeming metropolis, a fact that most New York City voters either forgot or ignored. In a political season of anticlimax, it seemed impossible to sink below the record low turnout of the Sept. 15 Democratic primary: 11 percent of registered Democrats.

Somehow the city’s Democratic voters seemed poised to rise to the challenge for the runoff.

P.S. 108 is a polling station in the Morris Park neighborhood in a district with 10,000 eligible Democratic voters. By the time the polls closed at 9 p.m., 15 hours after they opened, 124 voters had cast ballots. That’s 1 percent of eligible voters, about 8 per hour.

Joe Parone, 81, a retired sanitation worker, arrived around 2:30 p.m. with his wife, Lorraine. “They were so happy to see me,” he said. “We were the only people in there.”

Taking stock of the anemic turnout, his expression became grim. “How could you not vote?” he asked, recalling his service in the military during the Korean War.

“People don’t appreciate what a privilege this is,” he said. “Just look at other countries. Ahmadinejad, in Iran, who somehow gets 100 percent of the vote. Or Chávez. Or the guy in Russia, whatever his name is. It’s a joke.”

Mr. Parone was typical of many voters at the school: retired; somehow connected to city government, through work, a pension or a family member; and a die-hard, lifelong Democrat. Voters were being asked to choose primary winners in two citywide offices — comptroller and public advocate — who are expected to easily prevail in November.

The day started out with electoral promise. At 6:05 a.m., with the sun still not up, Michael Rivadeneyra, 32, hurried into the school, eager to vote before heading off to work. The move by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council to rewrite the city’s term limits deeply offended him, and he wanted to register his displeasure at the polls. “It’s a smack in the face to voters,” he said.

But over the next hour, just 4 voters cast their ballots. By 8 a.m., the number had inched up to 9. By 10:30, 28. By 11:30, 32.

And the lunchtime rush? It never came, save for a giggling crowd of fourth graders, who feasted on chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers a few feet from the voting booths.

Around 2:15 p.m., State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, who lives nearby, showed up to vote. He wore a crisp gray suit, and seemed eager to greet voters. But there were none to greet. Like Mr. Parone, he was the only voter in the room.

He said he had predicted the abysmal turnout. “I’ve gotten so many complaints from people about the runoff,” he said. “They think it’s a waste.”

He said that he had pleaded with his constituents to vote, but that he had a tough time convincing himself that a second primary election in two weeks made any sense. “We need to rethink this system,” he said.

Inside the polling station, workers tallied up the cost of their wages: $200 a worker, four workers per election district, and eight election districts represented in the school. Total cost: $6,400. Multiply that across the city, toss in other costs, like moving thousands of voting booths, and the price tag is about $15 million.

The workers said it made no sense to spend so much on so few voters. One colleague reminded them that city regulations require a certain number of workers to be present. Just in case.

Hannibal Coscia, 83, a retiree, voted with his wife, Lucy, in the afternoon. He called it “my duty.” Besides, he said, local elections are even more important than national ones, “because this is the only place where you can actually meet with the candidates, and talk to them.”

He shook his head at the desolate polling station around him.

He could not shake an image from his head: long lines of excited voters in Iraq and Afghanistan, of all places, after the United States invaded both countries. “Apparently,” he said, “they recognize something we don’t.”