The strange tale of Congressman John Arden

Conte For those of you still clinging to your dusty old PD-43 election returns booklets, take out your 1988 edition. That was the year Silvio Conte was elected to the House of Representatives for the 16th time representing the first Congressional District. Congressional records from 1988 to 1990 certainly confirm his presence in Congress during that period. Except, according to the State’s official keeper of records, Conte actually lost the 1980 election to John Arden of Easthampton by nearly 150,000 votes.

I came across this historical curiosity because we at The MassINC Polling Group are working on a database of election statistics in Massachusetts. We are drawing the data for this project from a variety of sources, but one of the main ones is the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website. His fairly useful search tool allows one to download data from individual elections -- sort of a glorified, electronic version of the old PD-43 booklets. We have downloaded reams of this data, and have been organizing it for future analysis. In doing so, we have discovered a number of errors in the data (some of which we have tweeted about).

Until today, I assumed (for no particular reason) the data problems was due to computing or database errors and therefore easily fixable by someone with the access and the inclination. Turns out this is not exactly true. I spoke by phone with a woman from the elections department who told me the problems were, in some cases, with the original certified documents from which the website database is extracted. So, officially, Silvio Conte was certified to have lost his reelection effort in 1988. The document is right there, official stamp and all, showing John R. Arden with 186,356 votes to Conte’s 38,907.

What happens now? Nothing consequential, for sure. This error is, at most, an electoral asterisk, and not indicative of any current problems with vote counting or record keeping. Indeed, only a few of the errors we found are from after Secretary Galvin took office in 1995, and the recent ones are relatively minor. But, as the Commonwealth’s purveyor of official election results, he can’t well leave a clearly erroneous document on the website and in databases. So what to do?