Over the weekend, Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani made headlines after resuscitating an old political stereotype. “Dead people generally vote for Democrats rather than Republicans,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday in response to a question about election fraud, bringing to mind hordes of zombie voters lurching to the polls and checking boxes for Hillary Clinton.
It’s an old story, a Chicago legend, a very rare occurrence and perhaps the most seasonally appropriate way to rig an election—bringing dead voters to the polls. Just a few months ago, a local CBS affiliate in California found examples of voters who had cast ballots in multiple elections despite being dead for years.
But how old is this fear, exactly? And is there actually anything to worry about?
Political parties have been at each other’s throats about election rigging since way back, before the modern-day Republican Party even existed. In the early 19th century, just a few short decades after the country had agreed on a Constitution, charges of election fraud were already flying between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
After the Civil War, though, it took on a new life. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, protected the right of citizens to vote, and the first Enforcement Act, passed that year, enumerated all the types of voter fraud that would be punished. Dead voters were enough of a concern that Congress addressed the problem specifically. According to the act, it was a crime to “knowingly personate and vote, or attempt to vote in the name of any other person, whether living, dead, or fictitious.”
Although the Fifteenth Amendment was meant to enfranchise black voters, the Democratic Party quickly found ways to twist the law against them. After Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tildon by one electoral vote in 1876, Democrats cried foul. They accused their opponents of all kinds of trickery across the Southern states—in one representative example, the Democrats accused the Republicans of opening a poll in a Democrat-heavy district of Louisiana “at three o’clock in the morning at the sugar-house… three and a half miles from the public road,” compromising the integrity of ballot boxes by failing to provide sealing-wax, letting convicts vote—and letting dead people vote.
One specific accusation was that a Republican supervisor in Louisiana “furnished colored men new certificates under the numbers of deceased white and colored men.” There is also mention of “a large number of colored women, armed with cane-knive[s],” appearing outside a poll, and of white voter repression. (Nothing came of these accusations but bad blood: Hayes kept the White House, but Democrats called him “His Fraudulency” throughout his one-term tenure.)
But even in the 19th century, when electoral fraud (rather than voter suppression) was a real issue, dead voters were just a fraction of the fake voters who cast ballots. In 1890, in Jersey City, N.J., investigators uncovered a substantial electoral fraud, which included voters submitting ballots for “their friends and neighbors, both dead and alive,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. The headline: VOTED FROM THEIR GRAVES. “A widespread resurrection had prevailed in the Third Precinct,” the paper said.
In a later tallying, dead voters were only a small part of the problem. The fraudulent votes included 10 people. But that was just a small fraction of the fake votes in this district, according to the Tribune:
“…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.”
Also, a three-year-old voted.
But even then, these votes were dwarfed by “tissue ballots”—sometimes also called joker ballots or kiss ballots. These ballots were essentially sneaky duplicates. A voter would deposit what looked one ballot but what was in fact many thinner ballots stuck together. After the polls closed, conspirators would shake the ballot boxes, and the votes would multiply as they came loose. It was “perhaps one of the most widespread and ingenious methods of fraud,” writes historian Robert M. Goldman in A Free Ballot and a Fair Count, popular as a strategy for padding the Democratic vote across the South.
Dead voters remain a strange, spectral threat. They returned to haunt American elections in the 1960s, when Earl Mazo, a political reporter and Nixon biographer, became convinced John F. Kennedy had stolen the election from Richard Nixon. In Chicago, he found a “cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and voted,” he said later.
In this century, newspapers regularly publish reports of dead people lingering on voter rolls. But the vast majority of these dead voters don’t bother coming the polls; their names are on the list only because the lists aren’t often cleaned up. As the Brennan Center for Justice has documented, when these cases are investigated, there’s no fraud found: if a dead person has voted, it’s usually a clerical error—or a case where the person cast an early ballot before they died. (And in those cases, the votes don’t count.)
In South Carolina, for instance, in 2012, the Attorney General announced that he’d found more than 900 dead voters who cast ballots in previous elections. But as the Washington Post later reported, those votes did not swing any elections. First of all, they were spread out over 74 elections over seven years. Second of all, they weren’t some coordinated fraud effort but “the result of clerical errors or mistaken identities,” the Post wrote.
There are just easier ways to win than to raise voters from the dead.