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Stateside with Rosalea: Money In The Bank

Stateside with Rosalea

Money In The Bank

Despite all the brouhaha about electronic voting, there remains one very strong reason for opposing the solution suggested by some people of providing a paper trail for the voter: it's not called a "receipt" for nothing.

What follows is a story told to me by an engineer I know about his experience as a voter in the town of Colma, here on the San Francisco peninsula. Although it took place back in the seventies, the key element of the story - voter coercion - is as relevant today as it was back then. But first some background.

Colma is not so much a town as a necropolis. The first internments were made there in 1887, but by 1902 San Francisco had banned cemeteries from within its own jurisdiction and all its cemetries were relocated down the peninsula in Colma. In 1950, the population of living persons in the town was a mere 264, and that same year a planning ordinance established it as a "memorial city", banning any development other than cemeteries and accessory uses (stonecutters, nurseries, monuments works, etc), residential, and agricultural.

In the late sixties, early seventies, most if not all the farm land in the area was owned by the Ottoboni family. Not only that, but the family had a father and son presence on the council, and when Ray Ottoboni Snr. was mayor, he appointed his son - reportedly a drunkard and a liar - chief of police. The town's population by this time was about 500.

Enter, of all things, a highway. San Francisco was building a freeway from the city south - the 280 - and selling off the houses in its path for a dollar each. Ottoboni senior seized the moment and bought 100 of them, relocated them on his farmland, and recruited tenants for them to whom it was made clear which way they should vote in the upcoming council elections.

There was nothing subtle about this, you understand. Phill Guillory, who was a tenant in one of Ottoboni's houses, recalls that one election day Ottoboni Snr knocked on his door, referred to the sheet of paper in his hand, and said, "Your name isn't crossed off, so you haven't voted. I'll drive you down to the polling place." To which Guillory replied, "This is America. You can tell me not to scratch your walls, but you can't tell me how to vote."

Guillory later told the office of the county's registrar of voters about what had happened. Eventually, he got a call from someone asking him for more details, and though he doesn't recall who that person was, it's likely it was a member of the civil grand jury that subsequently investigated whether charges could be brought.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle of February 24, 1976, Ottoboni Snr and his wife and son were "indicted by a grand jury on charges they moved residents of Colma into houses they own there for the purpose of establishing eligibility to vote in Colma." Entering of their pleas was set for the following Friday.

The Chron goes on to report that "the younger Ottoboni, a candidate for city council in next Tuesday's election, has been at times, a councilman, mayor and police chief in the community." At the time of his arrest, Ottoboni Snr was asked by a reporter why he had been indicted and replied, "There's an election going on. Get it?"

In August, the son was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail and placed on probation for three years for interfering with an election process, though given a stay of execution until October to permit psychiatric evaluation. His father was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service. The charges against his wife were dropped, but she died shortly thereafter, some say as a result of the stress incurred by the court case.

If those are the lengths that elected officials in this country go to, just to preserve a $125 a month position on a town council, do you really suppose that giving voters a piece of paper that verifies how they voted is a good idea?


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