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High Stakes, Mixed Message

Eighteen-year-old Princeton Alexander, outfitted in a hooded sweatshirt and loose jeans, cast his vote on Tuesday for only the second time in his brief career as a member of the California electorate. The first time was uneventful, he said, but today was strikingly opposite. "This is a pretty big election," said Alexander, an Inglewood resident and student at El Camino College. "It felt good. I hope I make a difference."

That higher-stakes feeling prevailed all across the city. As expected, polling places all over the Southland experienced an increase in voter traffic, partly because as many as five or six precincts in some places had been collapsed into one. But the steady stream of voters that continued through the non-rush hours was also fueled by a sense of urgency missing from last year’s gubernatorial election. When it got down to the wire in this two-horse race, people seemed determined to either keep Arnold Schwarzenegger out or vote him in — a dichotomy that broke down somewhat predictably along ethnic and political party lines. Blacks and Latinos interviewed largely voted against the recall; whites and Asians largely voted for it and were more likely to vote for Arnold. "I have mixed issues on Schwarzenegger," said Carlos Guerrero, a 28-year-old MTA bus operator who lives in East L.A. "I don’t want to see a Republican in office. I don’t like the way Bush is in office, and I think Schwarzenegger will be another Bush."

San Marino engineer Anne Lam voted for the recall, and for Tom McClintock as Gray Davis’ replacement. "I don’t think he’s doing a good job," she said of the governor. "I voted for McClintock because he’s conservative on the social issues, like abortion. Arnold isn’t."

And Jim Jones of Inglewood, a 78-year-old retired restaurateur, groused, "This whole recall thing is a bad idea." Jones, an African-American and a longtime Democrat, said he voted strategy in voting for Cruz Bustamante. "He’s not perfect, but who is? I tell you, if Arnold Schwarzenegger wins, I’m leaving the country."

Arnold wasn’t the only issue of concern in this election; for many, the fairness of the election process itself ran a close second. Several groups, including the South Los Angeles chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), braced for chaos in the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods that employed the most outdated voting equipment and where irregularities were therefore most likely to occur. There was indeed some trouble: ACORN workers dispatched to polls across a broad swath of the 8th, 9th and 10th council districts reported several polling places opening well after 7 a.m. or not opening at all. A precinct on Budlong Avenue didn’t put out its flag until nearly 8:30. Many people who showed up to vote at Bret Harte Middle School at Hoover and 93rd streets were turned away because they lived south of the precinct’s Century Boulevard boundary — but they had no idea what the correct precinct was because, said organizer Roland Mike, they’d gotten no information in the mail. Edwin Mejia, 28, arrived at his appointed polling place at 42nd Street and Avalon Boulevard bright and early at 8 a.m. only to find the punch-card equipment wasn’t properly set up. He waited until 9:30, he says, and then had to leave to go to work, as did many others who showed up. Mejia estimates that between 30 and 100 people waited and left because of work schedules or simply because they were discouraged.

Mejia is a deliveryman who was able to come back later in the morning to vote because the precinct fell within his Tuesday route, but he wonders about other voters who weren’t so lucky. "There were a lot of seniors there, and they probably couldn’t come back," he says. "They only had a small window of time."

For all the glitches at the polls and complaints that will surely follow, the intensified voter activity in neighborhoods known for voter apathy was essentially good news; ACORN and other groups like the African American Voter Registration and Education Project had spent weeks trying to register thousands of new voters by the September 22 deadline; they had also tried to heighten interest in the election generally. Those efforts appeared to pay off. At Ward AME Church, at Adams and Vermont, a poll observer said 150 votes had been cast by 7:30 a.m., in contrast to about 25 by the same time in last year’s gubernatorial race. Another precinct in midcity recorded nearly 600 votes by 3 p.m., a nearly unprecedented pace.

Of course, most inner-city activists were encouraging the windfall of voters of color to support specific causes: vote down the recall, or at least vote down Arnold, and turn back Proposition 54, which sought to eradicate the collection of racial data. The multi-message got through to many, but like everything else in this election, success was hardly a sure thing. Erik Sarni, a Latino who attends East L.A. College, threw caution and conventional wisdom to the wind. "I live around here, and Arnold hosted Inner City Games for the youth," said Sarni. "I don’t think I saw Gray Davis in the streets. A lot of people say Arnold doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he sounds good to me."

Christine Pelisek contributed reporting to this story.


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