Maybe it’s even fitting, that so many dead people apparently try to cast ballots, since elections largely take place in the fall. Wondering whether the person casting a ballot in the booth next to you is dead or alive just adds to the excitement, if you ask me.
With only a few days left until the presidential election, accusations of election rigging and voter fraud – particularly the barb that dead people are voting – are running rampant on the airwaves and through the candidates camps.
But did you know that the fear of dead people voting in big enough numbers to sway an election is nothing new?
Let’s take a look into our nations haunted past, and a few other times when this worry has found its way into the funny papers, shall we?
It turns out that shouts about election rigging go as far back as a few decades after the Constitution was agreed on and signed. They reared their ugly heads again after the Civil War, with the ratification of the 15th Amendment – it protected the right of citizens to vote and the Enforcement Act, passed that year, promised that voter fraud would be punished. The concern over dead voters was strong enough that the problem was specifically addressed in the Act.
“It is a crime to knowingly personate and vote, or attempt to vote in the name of any other person, whether living, dead, or fictitious.”
And the Amendment and Act came into immediate focus in 1876, when Rutherford B Hayes (R) beat Samuel J Tildon (D) by one single electoral vote. The Democrats went wild accusing their opponents of trickery including failing to provide sealing wax, recruiting convict to vote, and yes, letting dead people cast ballots.
Nothing came from these (or other) accusations, though Democrats did refer to Hayes as “His Fraudulency” through the whole of his single term.
The 19th century took things to a new level as far as electoral fraud, though still, only a fraction of the issue was related to dead voters. An 1890 investigation in Jersey City, NJ, uncovered voters casting ballots for “their friends and neighbors, both dead and alive.” The Chicago Daily Daily Tribune ran a headline that read VOTED FROM THEIR GRAVES, and claimed that a “widespread resurrection had prevailed in the Third Precinct.”
In truth, once the investigation was finished, dead people weren’t popping up in large numbers at all.
“…five of the voters were from house numbers that do not exist, twenty-six ballots were counted for voters living on vacant lots, sixty-six were cast on the names of men who had moved away six months before election from the places of residence given them on the poll list, fifty-three men never lived in the houses in which the poll-book represents them as living at the time of the election, five names were voted on twice…and twelve votes were down as residing in factories and railroad yards.”
There was also a three-year-old that cast a ballot, but of far bigger concern than any of these clerical-type errors was the phenomenon of “tissue ballots,” which occurred when someone dropped what appeared to be one completed ballot into the box. It was, in reality, several thinner ballots stuck together.
Dead voters returned to haunt American elections in the 1960s when political reporter (and Nixon biographer) Earl Mazo claimed that JFK had stolen the election after finding a “cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and voted” in Chicago.
In our own century, there is certainly proof to the claim that dead people continue to linger on voter rolls, but the majority don’t bother climbing out of their caskets to shamble to the polls on election day. The issues are mainly clerical – the lists aren’t cleaned up that often, or the person cast the ballot before they died (those votes don’t count, if you’re curious).
In 2012, the South Carolina Attorney General found more than 900 dead voters who had cast ballots in previous elections. Which sounds like a big number, and perhaps a reason for concern, until you realize those votes were spread over 74 elections over 7 years, which meant there was no way they could have swung an election.
The fact of the matter is that until the zombie apocalypse happens, and dead people are at least as concerned with doing their civic duty as they are with chowing fresh brains when it does, the issue of dead people voting – though storied in its tradition – just doesn’t warrant that much concern.
h/t: Atlas Obscura