Music Cues: Voter Fraud
November 18, 2000
Now that all talk of issues has passed and the contest has come down to a massive game of monkey tussle among former secretaries of State wearing expensive Italian suits, the American public finally seems to be getting interested in this year's election--two Bush brothers, estranged by electoral votes; the son of a Southern senator vows that his totals will rise again. Dick Daley's boy cries foul against fraud. Former diplomats who used to fret over nuclear proliferation and the Soviet empire now contest needle-sized dimples and hanging chads. These are the elements of a prolonged if not exactly great melodrama. What would you rather watch, reruns of Miami Vice or new installments of Florida votes?
I'm from Chicago, after all, where various forms of vote fraud have historically been considered a kind of civic art, like jazz. The punch-card ballots that are now being literally held up to the light were devised in the early 1960s, replacing the old check-the-box paper ballot after Mayor Richard J. Daley's Chicago Democratic machine had delivered Illinois and the presidency to John F. Kennedy. Local ward heelers in Boston, Louisiana and Texas used to boast about their chicanery electing sheriffs and senators, but Chicagoans bragged about electing a president. When the College of Cardinals met to elect a new pope in 1963, I wondered who Mayor Daley would send to take over at the Vatican.
Now as it develops, that story of Chicago's ghost voters rising from the river wards to win the presidency might have largely been an urban legend. John F. Kennedy also won California, which made Illinois' electoral votes unnecessary. But Mayor Daley did little to deflect credit. The legend won him favors and acclaim that would be lost if politicians ever concluded they could win elections on their own.
The punch-card ballots were designed to give human hands less opportunity for intervention in the vote-counting process. They were designed at a time when human beings distrusted their own foibles more than those of machines. Punch-card ballots are, indeed, difficult to read. The holes are small. The lines are dense. It can be like trying to pick a grain of sand out of the screen door. Punch cards were designed to be counted by machines, but they were also designed to be recounted, should it come to that, by human beings, each vote visible and verifiable on a card.