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A Historic Election Rouses Few Voters : Politics: Idle poll workers blame Gulf War and lack of awareness of the ballotting.

January 23, 1991|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What if they held an election but nobody bothered to vote?

Poll worker Celia Ancheta pondered this question Tuesday as Election Day dragged on at Betty Plasencia Elementary School near downtown, in a historic vote to place the first Latino on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

By 9 a.m., with the morning "rush" over, only 12 of the precinct's 641 voters had cast ballots--and three of those voters were Ancheta and her fellow precinct workers.

For Ancheta, 66, it was a pathetic comment on the state of modern democracy.

"People are lazy," she said as three polling booths stood empty in the center of a cavernous school auditorium. "They just don't care."

Throughout most of the new 1st Supervisorial District, turnout was low Tuesday, with voters as scarce as raindrops in the sunny, drought-parched skies.

Poll workers guessed that most people had not heard about the special election and that others were distracted by the Gulf War. Most of the nine candidates encouraged voters to cast ballots by mail, further eroding turnout at the polls.

Finding voters was difficult even at East Los Angeles College, where most students were not aware of the election, even though it was "Student Awareness Day."

Ken Ramirez, the 21-year-old vice president of the Student Political Action Club, said he had not voted because he was confused by his absentee ballot.

"Really, I didn't understand the process of the absentee ballot," he said. "I knew the date (of the election). I was just confused."

Ramirez had attended a candidates' forum earlier this month at the college, but was left uninspired by the leading contenders--state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), county employee Sarah Flores, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina and state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles).

The candidates, he said, "were too busy putting each other down. . . . I think it turned a lot of people off to the election. That kind of representation we don't need."

Those who did vote--many of them senior citizens--hoped that the election would bring some badly needed changes to their communities.

Ramon Ramirez, 65, cast his vote at the social hall of the Estrada Courts housing projects in Boyle Heights. With crime and drug abuse a fact of life in the neighborhood, Ramirez was casting his ballot for Molina in the hope that she could "get something done."

"We need to get a supervisor that's going to help us, the Mexican community," he said.

Vicente Rodriguez, 28, cast his ballot in El Sereno, for Torres. "I don't care if they're Latino, white, whatever. We need them to do something," Rodriguez said. "It's not the suit that they're wearing, it's what's inside. We need to find someone who will start doing something for the people."

Voter turnout appeared to be heaviest in the district's more affluent neighborhoods--where much of the campaign mail was targeted.

In the first two hours of balloting at a Mt. Washington precinct, 9% of those registered had voted--about four times the rate at Plasencia Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles.

"This precinct is always higher than the city average," said poll worker Nancy Wyatt, who monitored four polling booths in a stately Craftsman-style home on San Rafael Avenue. "It's always exciting on Election Day. We have a lot of artists and professional people who vote here."

By contrast, back at Plasencia Elementary, Ancheta and her fellow poll workers were filling the day's long silences with idle conversation about their children, their neighbors and, of course, the war.

At noon, five hours into the balloting, only 28 voters had appeared.

"It's slow. Very, very slow," Ancheta said. "If we didn't talk, we'd fall asleep."

As in most special elections, more than a few votes came from "pathological voters," a term coined by political analysts to describe those people who cast ballots without fail in each and every election.

Selma Wilson, 69, greeted the workers at a Boyle Heights polling place on Soto Street like old friends.

"I'm doing my civic duty," Wilson called out as she walked through the door. "You can depend on me. If you don't see me, you'll know I'm dead."

The polling place--normally a travel agency--is on a busy commercial strip, crowded with shoppers, many of them recently arrived immigrants who are ineligible to vote.

One passerby, Blas Mendar, looked at the American flag and the election notices with a mixture of confusion and curiosity.

"An election, what's that?," Mendar asked in Spanish. Born in Mexico, but a 17-year resident of Los Angeles, Mendar had applied for immigration amnesty but is still not a U.S. citizen.

"I've never done that (voted)," he said. "I've never had the chance. They never told me."

As workers prepared to close the polls at Plasencia Elementary School, only 79 voters had cast ballots, a turnout of 12%. Poll worker Simona Kolb was more than a little frustrated by the poor showing.

"Who's making all this fuss about Hispanic representation when they don't go out and vote?" she asked.

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