A lot about the 2016 presidential election has been unprecedented, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen calls for recounts in some states. One case that still remains somewhat mysterious happened in 1960. To this day, plenty of people will tell you that John F. Kennedy became president thanks in part to all the dead people who voted in Chicago.
Edmund F. Kallina investigated what really happened in 1960 in Illinois. There’s no doubt that there was plenty of corruption within Chicago’s Democratic establishment at the time. Kallina writes that the local newspapers covered “hoodlums with close ties to organized crime who held city jobs but rarely appeared at work,” among many other scandals. When Kennedy won the state with 9,000 more votes than Richard Nixon, Republicans quickly accused the Democrats of tampering with the vote.
But Kallina writes that Republican Party officials probably didn’t actually think they could change the election results. Instead, they may have figured that making a fuss about vote fraud would hurt the reputation of the Democrats in the longer term.
Two major Chicago dailies, the Chicago Tribune and the Daily News, seized on the issue. Over the last two weeks in November, Kallina writes, the papers sometimes ran six to eight stories a day on election fraud. Some of these simply repeated completely unsubstantiated charges, like an accusation that officials had deprived 10,000 people of their right to vote.
It wasn’t that the papers were partisan, Kallina writes. Both had endorsed Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1959. It was just one of those cases of a story that was too good to fact-check: “It offered the opportunity to crusade on behalf of civic virtue, to expose evil, to write some sensational but easy stories, and generally to drum up interest, and perhaps circulation.”
One person who didn’t publicly back the idea of challenging the vote was Richard Nixon. While some historians think Nixon privately supported investigation into the matter and would have come forward if he’d seen a chance of winning state recounts, Kallina argues that he really wanted to unify the nation. “This position of Nixon’s was critical in aborting what might have turned into a much more serious assault on the validity of Kennedy’s victory,” he writes.
We do know something about what a recount might have revealed, thanks to Cook County State’s Attorney Benjamin S. Adamowski. Adamowski, a Republican, lost his own bid for reelection in 1960. Unlike Nixon, he did demand a recount. Where this was possible—in precincts using paper ballots—the recount showed that a considerable number of votes appeared to have been stolen from Adamowski, but much fewer from Nixon. Kallina argues that, if the recount had been able to detect fraud in machine voting as well, Adamowski would have won, but Nixon would still have lost.
The only choice for the losing side was to admit defeat and figure out what to do next.