The fire station on Arastradero Road in Palo Alto had all the trappings of a precinct on Election Day -- a table staffed with poll workers, stacks of ballots, checklists and registries.
The only thing that was missing on Tuesday was the voters.
This may seem a bit surprising given that this precinct is right next to the Maybell orchard site that was the focus on Measure D, the only issue on the ballot in Palo Alto. Yet the serene atmosphere here and at other precincts was perfectly emblematic of recent elections, where the vast majority of voters have mailed in their ballots well in advance of Election Day.
By 3:45 p.m., only 50 people had actually come in to vote at the fire station, though another 150 or so walked in to drop off their filled-out ballots, said Kathy Parks, the precinct inspector. The light showing is not too surprising, she said, given that this is an off-year election with only one issue on the ballot. Even those who do come in, typically do so just to submit their ballots.
"People are usually voting by mail now, but many still like to come in, get their sticker and feel like they voted," Parks said.
A few blocks away, at Palo Alto Christian Reformed Church at 687 Arastradero Road, the numbers are greater though the scene is equally tranquil. By 4 p.m., more than 130 voters actually filled out their ballots at the precinct, while many more came in only to hand in their ballots. Here, like in other precincts throughout the city, the voting booths were completely empty during the late afternoon.
GAHiji Bostic, precinct inspector at the church, said the Election Day has been particularly easy for the workers this year, with only one thing on the ballot.
"This is gravy train," Bostic said.
While the limited scope of the election is one factor that explains the leisurely atmosphere, the changing voting behavior is another factor. Of the roughly 11,500 people who voted in Palo Alto (about 30 percent of the registered voters), 9,000 mailed in their ballots early. When the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters released the results from the first 9,000 at 8 p.m., showing opponents of Measure D leading by more than 1,000 votes, it was apparent to both campaigns that there will be no late-night comebacks. These days, there simply aren't enough voters on Election Day to make up the difference.
Even so, some poll workers said they were impressed with the turnout. At Walter Hays Elementary School, close to 90 voters filled out ballots by 5 p.m., a number that exceeded the expectations of poll clerk Reo Haynes.
"I think this is a pretty big turnout, more than I thought," Haynes said.
Even so, things weren't too frantic. Haynes idled the way the time by working on a crossword puzzle. Next to her, fellow poll clerk Joyce Tavrow was reading an old issue of the New Yorker.
At the Channing House, a housing development for seniors, things were also peaceful on Election Day. With no voters in the booths, poll clerk Bert Laurence was musing about the disproportionate field on the American flag hanging outside the precinct. Someone should do something about that, he said.
Then, at around 5 p.m., five people came in, two to drop off ballots and three to fill them out. This was the third such spurt of activity, Laurence said, one around noon and another at around 1 p.m.
Bostic also said there were a few small waves of voters, though for the most part things at the church were quiet. A minute later, the two poll worker sitting next to them turned their heads as someone walked inside the church.
Anticlimactically, it turned out to be another poll worker.
"We get so excited when we see a human being," said one of the workers at the table, smiling.