After Rhode Island’s 1956 election, the New York Times devoted its Dec. 17, 1956, Man In The News column to the Rhode Island’s new Republican governor, Chris Del Sesto, writing that he was a “newcomer to politics, but he’s an old-timer in political administration.” By the next afternoon, Providence’s Evening Bulletin headline read: “Democrats Open Legal Attack.” Two weeks later, in a scenario that can only be described as Runyonesque, the former governor refused to relinquish his job.
My grandfather, an attorney and a CPA, served as chief accountant to the Rhode Island general treasurer in the early 1930s and participated in reorganizing state government. He worked in Washington, in the chief accountant’s office of the Securities and Exchange Commission and also became a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division. He specialized in prosecuting antitrust cases and became best known for toiling against milk monopolies. Back in Rhode Island during World War II, he was the director of the Office of Price Administration and received nationwide attention for his work.
Yet as qualified as he was and even after winning the election with bipartisan support, Chris Del Sesto did not take office in the election of 1956.
Time magazine wrote on Dec. 31, 1956: “Winning by a slim 427 votes out of almost 390,000 cast … Chris Del Sesto, 49, was elected Rhode Island’s first Republican governor in 16 years.” His opponent, incumbent Dennis J. Roberts disapproved of Del Sesto’s win, and by exploiting a legal loophole put into effect in 1911 he “sought to have 5,602 tide-turning absentee and shut-in ballots disqualified” by four state Supreme Court justices whom Roberts had played a role in installing. The fifth justice recused himself. He was the governor’s brother.
The court ruled in favor of the incumbent. My grandfather did not appeal the court’s decision. As Time wrote: “Instead, he warned that continued agitation might affect the operation and finances of state government.” He put the financial well-being of the state before his own ambition.
In 1958, he again won the election for governor, this time taking office. My grandfather’s place in history is secured by his fair and balanced leadership and professional successes. However, those are mere footnotes to his first gubernatorial election, which serves as an example of our democratic system’s propensity to flagrantly fail.
Displeasure with the breach in justice transcended party affiliation. As Time reported on Dec. 31: “a sizable number of Democrats were disgusted by [Roberts’] antics. Said one angrily: “Roberts has done to the party in minutes what the G.O.P has failed to do in years.”
But the Stolen Election of 1956 (as it is sometimes called) or The Long Count (as it is often referred to more politely in Rhode Island history books) was not the first or the last time democracy in America stumbled: More recently, hanging chads became a euphemism for all that was wrong with our electoral system. Just 537 votes determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The Florida election recount and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave Bush a majority of votes in the electoral college. Forty-seven lawsuits related to the election were filed in Florida, and who won was in question for 36 days. Gore won the national popular vote but conceded the election.
“Elections are a messy business,” Barry Richard, a Democrat who was Bush’s lead trial litigation attorney told U.S. News. “There have probably been hundreds of thousands of mistakes (in past elections), but they were not noticed before 2000 because they didn’t have such an impact.” Each time election mishaps play out in the news, people have more reasons to mistrust the fact that their votes count.
Various factors have contributed to the eroding of the public’s confidence and the integrity of our democratic process. Without trust in the fairness and transparency of the electoral process, presidential elections can begin to feel like mere gambling: a game of chance with high stakes. But it would be nice to think that democracy itself is not left up to luck.
My grandfather saw the election of 1956 as a harbinger not for himself or his party but for us all and our system of government. His post decision comment to Time was only this: “Democracy suffered another setback in Rhode Island today.”