The short man wearing a hat that said "Cushman Engines" was rumdrenched and very insistent.

He was going to vote, no matter what election officials told him at the elementary school in this town 20 miles west of San Juan. Clerks pored through computer registration sheets looking for his name. It wasn't there. But the man insisted and officials cajoled and teased him.

Finally he gave up. He would go vote where he was registered, he said. Everyone laughed. The officials from Precinct 19 cheered and applauded.

While this scene at the Dorado school was not representative, it tells a story about Puerto Rico's voting and politics, which natives like to call "our national sport."

For mainlanders accustomed to high technology ballot counting, sophisticated voting machines and secrecy at the polls, the nation's first Republican presidential primary election of 1980 is a revelation.

The voting here is on paper ballots (bring your own pencil, please), without secret voting booths and with tin cans atop ballot boxes of donations to help defray the cost of today's election.

If it seems informal, it is. But it also works. Among Latin American lands, Puerto Rico historically has been uniquely free of electoral fraud and abuse -- the informality notwithstanding.

Rita Peterson Torres, a precinct official at another Dorado school, explained why.

"Everyone knows everyone else," she said. "Yes, of course, Democrats could come and vote here today and then vote again on March 16. But people are responsible and they won't do that."

Just in case anyone intended to try, Gov. Carlos Romero-Barcelo issued an election eve appeal against double voting and warned of severe consequences for anyone who tried.

The spirit at the two elementary school polling places in Dorado appeared to be as Peterson Torres explained it. Voters and officials were jocose, high-spirited and deadly serious about casting their ballots.

Voters went to the polls between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at 3,342 precinct sites -- all public school classrooms under 80-degree tropical sun and bright skies around the island commonwealth.

As voters entered polling places, their names were checked against master registration lists. Qualified voters then received two long paper sheets -- a yellow ballot with names of GOP convention delegates and a white ballot with the presidential candidates' names and photographs.

In order of their selection by straws, names on the ballots were Sen. Bob Dole, Benjamin Fernandez, George Bush, Harold E. Stassen, John B. Connally, Gerald Thomas de Felice, Bedo Istvan Karoly and Sen. Howard Baker.

The winner among those eight is guaranteed Puerto Rico's 14 first-round votes at the Detroit Republican National Convention in July.

The National Republican Party of Puerto Rico set up an elaborate election central office in downtown San Juan with banks of telephones to receive calls with results from the 3,342 precincts.

Puerto Ricans -- regardless of their sympathies with mainland Democrats and Republicans -- were clearly basking in the attention their first-in-the-nation voting drew from the North American media, which came en masse.

Advocates of statehood, which included all the GOP candidates from the mainland, consider Puerto Rico's participation in this primary -- another first -- as an important step in entering U.S. political processes.

Which explains why Marcelino Canino, a 74-year-old retired rural school principal and fervent Carter supporter, dropped in for a chat with his political friends at the Dorado school today.

"I'm just visiting to see how this is going," he said. "I'll be back in March to vote for Carter. Carter is for statehood and so is the majority here.

"There will be more people voting in March because there is more interest in the race between Carter and Teddy Kennedy," he said."The thing, though, is statehood because it would give us more dignity. As a state we could receive, but we would have to contribute as well. Today as a commonwealth we depend on the U.S. in every aspect."

In 1922, when he delivered his 8th-grade valedictory speech, Canino talked about statehood. He titled it "On To Progress."