#706: The Voting Dead

October 31st, 2016

Happy Halloween. Let’s talk zombie voters.

Yes, the dead still vote in Chicago. Our legends of electoral malfeasance still have some grounding in reality when On A Night Just Like Tonight, the dead rise from their graves to participate in the political process.

119 dead people have voted a total 229 times in the last decade, CBS2’s Pam Zekman recently reported.

Most were likely just mistakes, the story said. Dead people who haven’t been taken off the voter rolls, their ballots handed out by mistake to family members or neighbors with similar names and addresses.

Zekman didn’t say how many of the cases were multiple votes or one-time goofs (let’s not forget that the purpose of TV news is to keep people stupid and scared, after all). The only two examples of multiple votes in a dead person’s name the story referenced directly were Victor Crosswell, who voted six times since he died 22 years ago, and Floyd Stevens, who died in 1993 and voted 11 times since.

That’s dangerous. But not as dangerous as what could happen.

The danger isn’t a Jr. getting handed his dead dad’s ballot or some true believer chuckling that she can get two votes for her candidate of choice “until they stop me,” according to the segment’s political expert Don Rose.

The danger is the people who will use Floyd Stevens’ 11 votes to disenfranchise thousands of living people. And the assumption that the “until they stop me” folks even exist.

I have problems with Zekman’s story. There’s no discussion of how many times were multiple voters versus one-offs, the sample data can go back as far as 23 years or 10 depending on where the coolest story lives and the immediate reactions of family members just told by a reporter that their dead uncle voted were given as much weight as the experts who have studied the matter. But my main problem is it doesn’t put the issue in the greater social context.

When Gov. Rauner vetoed automatic voter registration, which would have put thousands of eligible voters on the rolls and helped keep voter records more current, he cited voter fraud.

Among people who have studied the issue (and I don’t count Don Rose’s just-informed-of-the-data guesswork in the CBS2 segment as analysis), the most comprehensive voter-fraud investigation uncovered 31 credible cases of impersonation fraud nationally. Out of one billion votes cast.

So on one hand, that’s 0.0000003 percent of all votes with actual impersonation fraud. On the other hand, Don Rose was presented with some numbers and said it’s possible some of them might be fraud.

Not only fraud, but the exact type of fraud a Republican governor used to justify vetoing an act expected to bring thousands more low-income, working, young and non-white voters to the polls.

With so much at stake, I think Zekman’s piece should have put more — or (not to be snotty but pointing this out as a factual critique of the article) any — effort into determining which of these Chicago zombie votes were fraud and which were clerical mistakes. Instead, she reported guesses. Guesses are guesses whether they come from a dead guy’s nephew or Don Rose.

I suspect absolutely no malice on Zekman’s part. I think she just fell into TV news zone (quick-hit factoids, 90-second wrap-up, keep people stupid and scared). But politicians are using similar allegations to disenfranchise real-life people across the nation, either through suppressing automatic registration bills like Rauner and New Jersey’s Chris Christie did or through voter ID laws that skew elections to benefit whites and Republicans. And there’s also the troubling matter of the orange hobgoblin’s preemptive claims of rigged elections he might not accept.

With these real-life stakes, news cannot afford to report guesses. We in the industry cannot morally feed this fire and then retreat behind the journalistic deniability of “I said ‘allegedly.’”

Pam Zekman is sort of a hero of mine. I think her Mirage investigation in the 1970s is one of the most groundbreaking, compelling pieces of investigative journalism of the 20th century. Someone who knows what good investigative journalism is tossed context-less numbers and uneducated guesses at a TV audience when there is real, proven harm in the allegations.

Just because a live remote from a graveyard makes a spooky holiday tie-in.

That’s the scariest thing I can think of. Happy Halloween.

Enjoy dirty politics and dirty martinis with me at “How to Steal an Election,” a night I’m running with Atlas Obscura and the Room 13 speakeasy tomorrow night. Swill craft cocktails while I take you through decades of COMPLETELY LEGAL voter manipulation in Chicago and elsewhere. Fun, civics, jazz and the craftiest of craft cocktails. Get your tickets today.

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