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Higher Turnout Than Expected Livens Up Election Day After a Sleepy Race

Nice weather, a competitive mayoral race, and a marijuana ballot initiative encouraged people to go to the polls.
Signs outside Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street, Northwest. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

When Rick Hayes, sexton at Metropolitan AME Episcopal Church, arrived to open the doors at 5:30 AM, there already was a line of DC residents waiting to vote in Precinct 17. For the next two hours, they cued up along L Street toward 15th Street, Northwest.

“There’s been a steady stream of folks coming out to vote all day long,” said church administrator Tony Hawkins.

By 3:30 on a sunny afternoon, more than 1,000 people had cast ballots, according to the precinct captain. The downtown precinct between 15th and 16th streets, around the corner from the Washington Post, draws residents from Dupont Circle and the apartment buildings along Massachusetts Avenue.

Kate Freund, 33, came with Cecily, her three-month-old daughter, snoozing on her chest. She and her friend, also with an infant, had just come from a baby music class. Freund said residents with young children will make their political presence known in the District.

“More and more people are staying in the city and getting involved in local politics,” she said.

With the sun setting and people way home from work, Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Alabama Avenue, Southeast, was picking up as voters shuffled in to pick the District’s next mayor.

“They have been coming in big bursts,” said precinct captain Phillip HInes-Bey, who counted more than 400 ballots. “It’s been a great turnout.”

Ward 8 wasn’t very friendly to Council member Muriel Bowser during the Democratic primary, but in the most competitive general election in memory on the line, she’s become a bit more popular there.

“A lot of people are mentioning Muriel Bowser,” said Paul Trantham, a volunteer at the church and a candidate for an advisory neighborhood commission seat. “Nobody knows who’s winning. We are optimistic.”

Bowser supporters, posted on the sidewalk since dawn, prediceted an easy win for their candidate, and said that Council member David Catania never made much of an impression in the city’s least affluent pockets.

“I didn’t really see him get out and interact,” said Chanel Fogel, “going all around the District.”

But not every Democrat greeting voters outside Allen AME is gung-ho about the green team. Khadijah Watson guessed, between passing out fliers for her own ANC campaign, that the mayoral race will be a squeaker. Bowser might have knocked off Mayor Vince Gray in the primary thanks to the ethical turpitude of 2010, but her win was hardly a mandate.

“They was not sure about voting for the mayor, and some weren’t positive on Bowser,” Watson, 67, said. “It’s not a shoe-in. Catania has been around for a long time. It’s going to be real close.”

Though Watson rebutted Fogel’s suggestion that Catania hadn’t attempted to connect with voters east of the Anacostia River, citing his 17-year tenure on the Council, Catania’s record only travels so far. “Catania may have more experience, but Muriel Bowser will have strong people working around her,” Watson said.

General-election turnout may not reach the 40 percent predicted by the DC Board of Elections, but people who are turning out are doing it for the top of the ticket. Across the city Tuesday, supporters of various candidates to be DC’s first elected attorney general were met largely with silence or confused looks when they urged voters for support. Field workers for Edward “Smitty” Smith at both Allen AME and Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street, Northwest, went practically ignored when they offered literature about the 34-year-old former Obama administration official. A Lorie Masters supporter’s luck was no better during the lunch rush at a Dupont Circle precinct. A late start to the race—Masters was only added to the ballot in June—and a field of five lawyers struggling to familiarize themselves with the city made the race for one of the most powerful jobs in local government a snoozer through the end.

Even with Watson’s pause about Bowser’s built-in edge in Ward 8, there’s little chance the Democratic nominee doesn’t coast to a huge margin in the city’s most heavily Democratic, predominantly African-American quadrant.

“As a rule, Ward 8 always votes Democrat, even if they have to hold their nose,” said Watson’s husband, Leonard.

Anita Bonds supporter Susan Meehan greets voters at a Northwest DC precinct. Photograph by Harry Jaffe.

Back in Ward 2, Precinct 15 at Foundry United was buzzing by 6 PM, with the sidewalks clogged with supporters of mayoral, attorney general, and DC Council candidates, not to mention Initiative 71, which would legalize marijuana possession for adults 21 and older. Many voters were younger, perhaps not longtime DC residents, and living in recently posh enclaves like Logan Circle and the iconic stretch of 16th Street between U Street and downtown.

While veterans of DC politics—like Susan Meehan, who’s worked Precinct 15 in every election since the start of home rule in 1974—passed out leaflets for council member and local Democratic heavy Anita Bonds, newer voters were far less committed to party affiliation. One young woman, who only gave her first name, Trish, exited Foundry United talking about why she voted for Catania despite her Democratic Party registration.

“I did my homework,” she said. “There was not a lot of inner conflict.”

Find Benjamin Freed and Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @brfreed and @harryjaffe.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.