PHILADELPHIA What if they held an election and lost the votes?

That's what has happened in 15 voting divisions around the city, where officials have been unable to locate paper tapes identifying the write-in votes recorded in 21 races for judge of elections and inspector - the people who are supposed to run those 15 polling places for the next four years.

Unless and until the tapes are located, it will be impossible to say who won those posts on Nov. 5, leaving the positions vacant, to be filled by future volunteers, usually recruited on an election-by-election basis by Democratic or Republican committee people.

Similar problems with write-in votes occur in every election, according to city election veterans, and it does not usually matter, because write-ins are rarely recorded in numbers sufficient to affect election outcomes.

But the exception occurs every four years, when voters in each of the city's 1,687 divisions get to elect a judge of elections and two inspectors, responsible for running the polling places in the subsequent four years.

In hundreds of divisions, nobody collects enough signatures to get on the ballot, so it is possible to win the jobs by writing in one's name or seeking the support of a spouse or a neighbor.

The judges receive $100 each Election Day, the inspectors $95.

The 15 polling places where significant numbers of write-in votes are missing represent fewer than 1 percent of the city's 1,687 voting divisions. As for how the tapes were lost, or who's responsible: It's a mystery.

"Our position is that the tapes were not returned to us, as required by law," said Republican Al Schmidt, vice-chairman of the city commissioners, who run Philadelphia elections.

"I'm more than disappointed," said his Democratic colleague Stephanie Singer. "Voters should be able to choose their poll workers. . . . It's the bedrock of democracy."

The paper tapes recording the write-in votes are supposed to be removed from voting machines the night of the election and collected by police officers at each polling place, along with matchbook-size computer cartridges that record vote totals for each candidate, plus cards on which poll workers are supposed to record the number of votes cast on each machine.

The police officers then take the material to one of seven "regional transmission centers," where the cartridges feed numbers into a computer network, to be incorporated in city vote totals. Eventually, the paper tapes, cartridges, and cards are supposed to make their way to the commissioners' central offices at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street.

To be sure, no issues have cropped up in the tallies for the bigger races on the Nov. 5 ballot - for district attorney, city controller, and a long list of judgeships.

But paper tapes with write-in results from about 55 divisions are missing, Schmidt said. In 40 of them, no write-in votes were recorded, he said, but in 15 divisions, with a total of 59 write-in votes, the numbers were significant enough to elect a judge of elections or an inspector.

Schmidt said there was no indication or suspicion of election fraud or other skulduggery in the missing tapes.

"They're just missing," he said. "We don't know what happened to them."