No "gate" labels, please, but the story you are about to read is true and contains all of the above. And if you were among the legions of voters whose names didn't ring a bell at the polls last month, you should know that it was nothing personal -- you were in good company, thanks to a two-year tragicomedy of errors.
If and when you try to vote again four weeks from Tuesday, your chances of acceptance should improve -- assuming that certain emergency procedures are adopted. Still, what went wrong last time can't go entirely right for everyone until a major overhaul takes place.
When Teddy Filosofos delivered his swan song the other day after resigning as director of the board of elections, his account of staff "incompetence" and of employees who "were just not properly trained," his charges were not the sour grapes of a man under fire; his tales of ineptitude are confirmed -- and topped -- by other insiders in positions to know, if not to say so out loud.
Though the history of foul-ups at the elections board is hideously long, it didn't used to include voter registration. It was the handling of ballots that was botched in those days -- a box falling off a truck; another one lost; student ballot-counters who went out on their meal breaks one election evening and never returned, sending a shaky count into days of overtime and doubt; machines that, instead of counting ballots, spat out piles of them untallied; ballots so complicated that voters were backed up by the scores.
But only now has registration -- the basic signing up and inclusion of residents on the official voting rolls -- come apart at the seams. The origins of this mess go back about two years -- but accurate records do not: in preparing for this latest election, the board could not even come up with the master file of voters that was used for the November 1980 general election. A later file, for 1981, didn't include voter registration numbers and had mistakes in it.
About those tapes: according to reports filed with the elections board, a search for computer tapes that might explain what went wrong after 1980 found that many were missing, some were blank and others had been ordered destroyed, erased or unlabeled and released into a pool of tapes to be reused. Some tapes, retrieved by board officials before the information could be destroyed, indicated a pattern of data-processing errors that were left uncorrected.
In one instance, after the 1980 election, an attempt to correct bad data on a tape resulted in the dropping of some 50,000 names. This error went unnoticed, according to officials, until a year later, when someone did notice. But by then, there were no computer programs, codes or other means for retrieving the lost information. The bureaucratic response was to bury the mistake electronically.
People had been registered -- or thought they had been -- on yellow cards; from these, the information was supposed to have been transcribed for key-punching, verified back against the cards and punched into the computer. But somewhere along the way, what amounted to a double key-punch operation turned into two sets of information: one for a postcard notifying the voter everything was all set for Election Day -- and another for a registration list that may or may not have included that same voter.
Then there were some 7,000 or more yellow cards that turned up in a desk drawer, where they had been dumped without being processed at all.
Filosofos noted last week that during his four months on the job, he fired a consultant who was being paid $1,000 a week in the last year to write a report on what was wrong with the board's record-keeping -- a job that already was being done by 1) the city auditor, 2) a D.C. Council task force and 3) the General Accounting Office. Filosofos said the consultant had stayed on the payroll for two months after filing a report "and wasn't doing a thing." He also fired two other people responsible for entering information into the computer system.
So what now?
David A. Splitt, who has agreed to serve as temporary director of the board through the coming election, begins by asserting that when registration difficulties arise at the polls -- a name missing -- "the presumption ought to be in favor of the voter." After all, the trouble here hasn't been one of crooked stand-ins voting the names of the dead and departed; on the contrary, the alive-and-on-the-premises voters have been electronically buried.
Anybody who shows up to vote on Nov. 2 and has identification should be considered registered on the spot. Cross-checks of these names can be made in the coming year. This list of all November voters should form the basis for a brand-new, up-to-date voter registration list for 1983.
Everything else -- all the old lists -- should be declared void. Then in 1983, the re-registration of anybody else who didn't vote in November could begin. That is not the awful, unfair or burdensome mission that some have portrayed it to be. With postcard registration through every library, with publicity, with mobile vans -- and with 11 months to do the job -- a far more accurate roster could be compiled: one that excluded those who no longer belong on the rolls and included those who have just moved here.
The only other list needed then would be the one with the names of anybody in the elections office who cannot, will not or never did perform up to the minimum -- and mandatory -- standard that any self-governing city or town in a democracy must uphold.