Philadelphia voters yawned at the municipal primary Tuesday, trickling into polling places in small and unenthusiastic numbers.

"Everywhere I was today, turnout was fairly low," said City Commissioners Cochairman Al Schmidt. No figures would be available until several hours after the polls closed at 8 p.m., but it was clear that only a small fraction of eligible voters had participated.

The numbers were understandable, Schmidt said, given the peaks and valleys in the election cycle.

"We're coming off a presidential general election where turnout was north of 60 percent," said Schmidt. In comparison, municipal primaries almost always elicit a relative yawn.

In 2009, Schmidt said, 13 percent voted in the municipal primary, so he did not expect Tuesday's election - which had no ballot questions, no challenger for district attorney, and no City Council or mayoral contests - to be much different.

Valerie Ross, who works at the Beasley law firm, said she never misses voting. But Ross, 53, said she was unsurprised that so few others cared to decide which judges and controllers should run in the general election.

"It could be," Ross said, "that everyone is turned off by the mess in Traffic Court."

Judging from a sporadic sampling of voters in Center City, however, the populace was not so much turned off as tuned out.

"I didn't know there was an election today," said Edward White, a graduate of Lincoln Technical Institute. White, wearing a black T-shirt that read, "Because I don't Care doesn't mean I don't Understand," said he was busy looking for a job.

The last time he voted, he said, was in 2008.

The battle for city controller, between incumbent Alan Butkovitz and opponents Brett Mandel and Mark Zecca, failed to inspire the same civic buzz that Barack Obama did then in his joust with John McCain.

Throughout the city, the biggest excitement at most polling places Tuesday was watching the pepperoni shrivel on pizza.

"The election is terrible," said Marlene Bloom, 78, who has worked the polls at Trinity Memorial Church at 22d and Spruce Streets since the 1970s. Sitting behind the table where she had spent the long, uneventful day in appropriately pallid light filtering through stained-glass windows, Bloom called this election the worst she had seen.

Rhona Gerber, the majority inspector at the poll, commiserated.

"There's general apathy. It's disheartening," said Gerber, thumping her hand on the table. "In other parts of the world, people fight to vote."

At Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, election judge Lula Cowans reported, "It's slow. Very, very, very, very, very slow. It's never this slow."

By midafternoon, only eight voters out of the more than 1,000 registered had cast ballots.

"I don't know if it's not enough advertising or what," Cowans said, "but it's very slow."

In the run-up to big elections, voters may complain when political ads flood the airwaves. They may direct the mudslide of campaign literature straight from the mailbox into the recycling bin. But trying to explain the colossal apathy Tuesday, several observers pointed to the lack of those candidate commercials and glossy pamphlets.

At her lonely post waiting for voters to arrive at Penn Rehab Center in the 3600 block of Chestnut Street, worker Bilal NuMan-Lloyad said part of the problem was that the election "wasn't on TV at all."

In Center City, Anna Irwin, a 28-year-old resident in anesthesia at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, said, "Usually, around election day, people are passing around stuff." Since no pamphlets and fliers drifted into her field of vision, Irwin said, the election passed her by.

Wearing her hospital scrubs as she stopped to grab a salad at an outdoor cafe, Irwin noted that in fairness to the politicians, her intensive work schedule has kept her out of the loop.

"I have no time off," she said.

Others who do have plenty of time, though, were just as detached.

"My mom told me about the election just last night," said James Shannon, who said he did not plan on visiting his polling place in Frankford. Soaking up the sun outside a Kmart, Shannon, 45, who is retired from the Army, said the Traffic Court scandal had upset him.

"I don't think it is right for judges to be fixing people's tickets," he said. But Shannon has taken the pox-on-all-their-houses approach to elections.

"I haven't voted in a long time. I really haven't found anyone worth voting for."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com or @dribbenonphilly,