Says dead people voted in Maryland last...


January 12, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ELLEN SAUERBREY says dead people voted in Maryland last year. Why does she have to make it sound so dirty? The cemetery vote is as American as cherry pie. Cemetery voters (also known as the tombstone bloc) have been responsible for the victories of some of our best-known Americans, and the defeat of some well-known ones, too.

For example, in 1960 John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency. As returns began to come in election night it appeared a single state could make a difference. Kennedy called Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to find out how things looked.

"With a little bit of luck and the help of a few friends, you're going to carry Illinois," Daley promised.

Daley's Cook County machine held back reporting the Chicago vote till the rest of the state was in, then gave Kennedy the margin of victory -- a mere 8,858 out of nearly 5 million cast. How many were dead, no one will ever know.

It has become part of American political lore that those graveyard precincts alone made Kennedy president. It's a myth. He was elected with 303 electoral votes to Nixon's 219. Switch Illinois' 27 and Kennedy still wins, 276-246.

But in Texas, the home state of Kennedy's running mate, Lyndon Johnson, the dead also did their civic duty; in one county with 4,895 registration, turnout was 6,138, overwhelmingly Democratic. Switch Texas and Illinois and Nixon wins, 270-252.

(Even the Kennedys believed that Illinois alone saved the day. After Election Day but before the Electoral College met, Kennedy was grousing about some of his new responsibilities. His father said to him, "Jack if you don't want the job, you don't have to take it. They're still counting votes in Cook County.")

(Another myth about this is that Nixon declined to ask for a recount because it would embarrass the nation in the international community. Maybe, in part, but he also wrote this in his memoirs: "What if I demanded a recount and it turned out that despite the vote fraud Kennedy had still won? Charges of 'sore loser' would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career."

At the presidential level, electors were chosen by popular vote in most states by 1824, and my guess is that the living mingled with the dead quite a bit in many presidential elections then and thereafter.

In 1844, 55,000 people voted in one New York district in which only 41,000 were qualified. It is a safe assumption that most of the un-living were Democrats. Democrat James Polk carried the state by 5,106 over Whig Henry Clay -- and New York's 36 electoral votes gave Polk his 163-127 victory.

In a true democracy a little vote fraud is inevitable. Therefore it's desirable. Wouldn't you rather live in a country where the dead occasionally vote, as in the good old U.S.A., than in a country where the living have to, as in the old Communist dictatorships?

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