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At Philly polls, no lines, no waiting, but some signs of better turnout

Has protest energy evaporated?

This was going to be the election where the energy from Trump-era protests moved off the streets and into the voting booths.

So, how did it go?

Let's just say that at a polling place on the Penn Charter School campus in East Falls — that's Ward 38, Division 11 — there was plenty of parking. The same was true elsewhere, although there were also signs in some places of a late-evening surge.

Calculations based on incomplete returns showed that turnout was tracking toward 16 percent, an improvement over comparable years.

"It's been light," said local Democratic committee co-chairperson Rose DiSanto, a little wistful at the numbers. "We've all been much more galvanized since November."

At midmorning, 33 of 438 registered voters had cast ballots. That's 7 percent of the division electorate. The hope was that that would improve during the day, since the division generally doubles the citywide average.

By Tuesday evening, it didn't seem that the city average would be all that impressive, despite gorgeous spring weather and an open race to replace District Attorney Seth Williams, who was indicted on corruption charges.

"It's a low-turnout election," district attorney candidate Rich Negrin said after casting his ballot in East Falls.

He was one of seven candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, which typically equates to general-election victory because of the party's huge advantage in registration. Beth Grossman ran unopposed on the Republican ballot.

At the city public health center at Broad and Lombard Streets, the long lines of November's presidential election had vanished. At 7:15 a.m., soon after the doors opened, poll workers far outnumbered the single voter in the room.

The same was true elsewhere, people wondering what happened to the vigor that accompanied the presidential balloting.

"Every vote we make can have a big impact," said Linda Saltford, who cast her ballot at Penn Charter. Just ask Al Gore or Hillary Clinton — both of whom won the popular vote but lost the presidency in the Electoral College.

Saltford thinks it's time to try to boost turnout by making big changes in how Americans vote. Some can't afford to take off time from work, she noted. Why not hold voting on Saturdays? Or make election days official holidays?

Research by Jonathan Tannen, a director at Econsult Solutions Inc., studied turnout in the Democratic primaries and found, not surprisingly, that competitive elections drew more voters than noncompetitive ones.

The race for district attorney was competitive in 2005 and 2009, while Williams ran unopposed in 2013. In this year's competition, Tannen wrote, the hope for turnout was the roughly 100,000 or so Democratic voters who came out in 2005 and 2009.

On Tuesday at the Falls of Schuylkill Library, Ward 38 Division 18, exactly 69 of 541 registered voters had cast ballots by lunch time. That's about 12 percent — low, but moving higher during the day.

"Slow but steady," said poll worker Debi Armstrong. "We just have civic-minded people who are really engaged."

In November, Andrea Highbloom of Center City waited two hours to vote for president at the Land Title Building on Broad Street. On Tuesday, she walked right in.

"It's a shame," she said. "I think it's important to be involved in local elections, and it's inspiring to see people on social media pushing one another to get out and vote."

About 180 people had voted there by 6 p.m.

Some political observers thought that in a big, liberal city like Philadelphia, the resistance to President Trump might begin to take electoral form.

About 50,000 people — women and men — jammed the Ben Franklin Parkway on Jan. 21 for the March on Philadelphia, which coincided with dozens of marches nationwide and the main Women's March on Washington that drew at least 500,000.

This week, before the polls opened, Beth E. Finn, a Philly Women Rally organizer in charge of social media, said the mission was to transfer activism from the street to the ballot box.

She sent out scores of messages and posts, hoping to boost turnout. People understand that marching won't mean much if it's not followed by electoral action, she said.

On the Penn Charter campus, beside the squash courts, two voting booths stood side by side. There was no line, no waiting, and not many voters.

"It's slow," said Mary Flournoy, the judge of elections.