Electronic ballots bring back comic alphabetical memories

March 04, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

AS A "COMPUTER guy," I've always doubted the wisdom of purely electronic voting systems, and now that I've tried one, I'm still worried - and not just for the reasons I expected.

Yes, I know that handing the future of American democracy over to the Microsoft Windows operating system is lunacy. And any scheme that counts votes with proprietary software that's not open to public inspection is an invitation to misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance and every other feasance.

But my experience with the Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen voting machine showed that I hadn't thought of everything.

In fact, from a purely mechanical standpoint, everything went well. The machine was easy to use, and the large print and touch boxes next to the candidates' names were easy to see.

However, when it came time to choose delegates to the presidential nominating convention, I noticed something strange. Of the 20 names on the screen, listed in alphabetical order, a dozen were committed to candidates who had already dropped out of the race, but only two each were listed for the remaining leaders, John Kerry and John Edwards. Weird, I thought, but I selected my allotted four candidates and hit the "Next" button.

That's when I found myself looking at a screen with 10 more delegate candidates, including two each for Kerry and Edwards.

Having neglected my specimen ballot, I didn't realize that 30 people were running in my district and that the screen didn't have room for them all. So I spent the next few minutes with the R-through-Z's, hitting the Previous and Next buttons, erasing previous votes and picking new ones. Not exactly a user-friendly ballot.

I also began to wonder how delegates banished to the Siberia of that second screen would fare if voters were confused by this alphabetical straitjacket. And that brought back fond memories of the first and wackiest campaign I ever covered.

The year was 1968, and I was a summer intern at the Providence Journal. For those who aren't familiar with this tiny, delightful corner of America, Rhode Island doesn't just tolerate political insanity, but demands it.

One of my assignments that summer was the local election in Johnston, a town just west of Providence where the politics were bizarre even by Rhode Island standards.

Like most of the state, it was solidly Democratic, which meant the real election was the primary. But Johnston did have its own peculiar two-party system, the Regular Democrats and the Insurgent Democrats. Their fraternal squabbles were the stuff of legend.

This particular battle - the race for mayor - was an artistic triumph that featured players born with the names Ralph R. Russo and Mario R. Russillo.

As Insurgents in the 1960s, they discovered that they were alphabetically challenged. Thanks to a quirk in Rhode Island election law, the candidate endorsed by the local Democratic organization (a Regular) always got a place of honor in the left-hand column of the voting machine, while his opponents were strung out alphabetically, left to right. There's a reason for this - old pols think that the average voter is a dolt who tends to pick a candidate from the first three or four names he sees.

In a crowded field, Russo and Russillo would have been stuck so far to the right on the ballot that voters would have had to travel to Massachusetts to find them. So in 1964, each legally added a lowercase "a" to his last name -- thus becoming the political comedy team of aRusso and aRussillo. The scheme worked for aRussillo, at least, because he won the mayor's job.

At the point where I stumbled in, the friends were now political enemies, with aRussillo the incumbent (but still an Insurgent) and aRusso - now a Regular - as his main challenger. Got that? Had everything gone as planned, aRusso would have claimed the left-hand column of the ballot, with aRussillo next door.

But the Regulars didn't want to take any chances, so they got four unknowns to file for the mayor's race. Coincidentally, all their names came before aRussillo. In fact, as one of my colleagues noted, John Quincy Adams would have been the fourth guy in line on that ballot.

But aRussillo got wind of the scheme, and just before the filing deadline, he slipped into a courtroom and had his name legally changed once again - by tacking a second "a" to the front. Thus he became Mario R. aaRussillo and vaulted to the front of the ballot.

I'm not making this up. It actually happened. And it worked. Nestled comfortably next to aRusso at the left edge of the voting machine, aaRussillo successfully defended his record and won in a squeaker.

The shenanigans produced gales of laughter at home and around the country. The duo became the joke-of-the-day on newscasts and political legends in Rhode Island. For the record, aaRussillo dropped out of politics two years later, and aRusso won the mayor's job, which he held for 24 years.

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