When the dead rise from the grave to vote, you need vigilantes to kill them By JENERALI ULIMWENGU | Monday, December 12  2011 at  09:04

Election officials transfer voting papers from a ballot box into a sealed bag at the National Independent Electoral Commission in Congo. Photo | AFP 

Twenty years ago, I had the honour of leading a parliamentary delegation on a study visit of the United States during which we were scheduled, among other things, to observe civic elections in Chicago, Illinois.

Though we went to a number of states to talk to legislators and state administrators and were even allowed into the Old Executive Building of the White House and a peek into the Rose Garden — where I saw not a rose — Chicago was the focal point of our tour.

Why Chicago? This town had earned a certain notoriety when it came to electoral fraud from way back in the 1960s, when that city was run by a mayor by the name of Richard Daley, who could have shamed Jacko the Wacko’s “Thriller” by the way he could get long dead people to rise and walk the streets. Not, mind you, to do the ghoulish dance in Michael’s video clip, but to vote.

Yes, Mayor Daley used to get everyone in Chicago to come out and vote correctly, even if coming out meant to rise from the dead. He was reportedly so good at these feats of necromancy that he was considered unbeatable in Chicago electoral politics. It is also believed that John Fitzgerald Kennedy could not have beaten Richard (Tricky Dick) Nixon without the help of the inhabitants of Chicago’s cemeteries, raised from their slumber by Mayor Daley, plus a little Mafia assistance.

Déjà vu

This time round, we were told, the citizens of Chicago were determined to thwart any attempt to steal their votes, and they had formed vigilante watchdogs to make sure the dead stayed dead, at least until after the election. They had reason to worry, by the way, because the Democratic party’s contender in the election was… Richard Daley Jr, who, it was feared, would prove to be a chip off the old block.

So we went all over the city, observing the precautions that had been put in place to deal with anything untoward; we met women’s groups, youth representatives, trade unions, clergy, gay and lesbian groups, sportsmen and women, all eager to ensure the integrity of the ballot. In the end, Junior won the mayoral chain, but the vigilantes for once were satisfied that he had won fair and square.

When, a year or so ago, fraud and corruption scandals broke around Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who had tried to “sell” the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when the latter moved to the White House, I said to myself, here we go again, so strong was my déjà vu.

I do not know whether civil society organisations played a role this time similar to the one they played in 1991, but at least someone caught the governor and made sure he got his just deserts: He will serve 14 years in prison, at least 85 per cent of which he must actually sit out in the cooler before he can aspire to parole.

(The American system can seem humane at times: The disgraced governor will still celebrate Christmas with his family.)

Cooked results

My interest in Blago’s case grows out of my observation of the impunity enjoyed by our electoral and other public officials who routinely and deliberately — for a consideration, no doubt — mismanage elections, disenfranchise voters they may not like, falsify ballots and release fictitious results, without a worry that they will be brought to book.

One senior legal officer in the region released such cooked results; when, later the same day, he was asked who had actually won the election he said, without batting an eyelid, he did not know. In our other countries electoral fraud may not have been as dramatic as the case cited, but everywhere it’s bad enough to cause worry.

Maybe we need to learn from the people of Chicago and form citizen vigilante groups to monitor our elections instead of relying on fly-by-night foreign observers who may not know that on polling day the cemeteries are usually empty.