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Essex County Clerk Nicholas V. Caputo at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

The Man With The Golden Arm

On Ballot Draw Day, memories of the Essex County Clerk who beat odds of 1 in 50 billion

By David Wildstein, April 14 2022 8:12 am

Nicholas V. Caputo was the Man With The Golden Arm.

As the Essex County Clerk from 1961 to 1991, Caputo was legendary for drawing Line A for the Essex County Democratic organization in every primary and in every general, except for once.  The odds of that happening were calculated at 1 in 50 billion.

On August 13, 1984, I attended the drawing at the County Clerk’s office in Newark and watched Caputo, standing behind a glass window, place his hand in a jury box and pick out a capsule. I watched him open the capsule and remove a tiny piece of paper from it.  I watched him unroll the paper and saw the typewritten word “Democrat” on it.

I still don’t know how he did it.

My suspicion was that he froze one of the capsules – or perhaps placed an indentation on it with his fingernail.  While the immaculately groomed Caputo typically had well-manicured nails, he had for some reason let them grow in the weeks prior to the ballot draw.

Frankly, there were a lot of theories.

Republicans sued Caputo, claiming that it was mathematically impossible for him to draw Line A for the Democrats with such regularity; I was one of the plaintiffs.

The case eventually made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Justice Robert Clifford, in a 6-0 decision, wrote that “despite the County Clerk’s apparent compliance with the statute in this instance, one cannot help being struck by the marvel, the otherworldly coincidence, of one party “winning” the drawing forty out of forty-one times. That the record supports this numerical result is not open to question. Nor is it open to any doubt whatsoever that assuming a fair and random selection of one item out of a possibility of two, the odds on drawing line A forty times out of forty-one draws are about one in fifty billion. Get that? ONE in FIFTY BILLION!”

After he won his sixth and final term in 1985, Caputo began letting his Deputy County Clerk, Patricia Drake, draw the ballots.  Democrats got Line A when she drew too.

I still don’t know how she did it.

David Wildstein is the editor of the New Jersey Globe.

Mochary v Caputo

Editorial from the Vineland Daily Journal, August 5, 1985.
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