My grandfather, M. Phillip Freed, was arrested in Philadelphia in 1950 on a complaint that he had been “interfering with orderly voting” and for inciting a riot of about 500 people outside of a polling place. At the time he was the Democratic Ward Chief of the 20th Ward. The main complainant was his GOP counterpart, who my grandfather had accused of voting irregularities in past elections.
Last week I heard a NPR report about conservative poll watching groups, Efforts to Prevent Voter Fraud Draw Scrutiny. Some allege that these ad hoc citizen groups are part of a Republican-backed effort to suppress the Democratic vote. It brought to mind, not only my grandfather, but the cynical phrase, “Vote early and vote often,” which is attributed to three different Chicagoans (all notorious for their manipulation of the democratic process)—Al Capone and mayors Richard J. Daley (1955-1976) and William Hale Thompson (1915-1923 and 1931-1935). These poll watchers feel this kind of policing is imperative because “they are concerned about the integrity of our election process.”
In my grandfather’s case, he explained to the judge that the reason he felt compelled to make his presence known at the polling place was because earlier that day a Republican judge of elections had been charged with “giving illegal assistance and unlawfully interfering with a voter.” At another site in the same division, a retired bricklayer said that on three different occasions while he was waiting to vote, he saw a man slip into the voting booth with other people who were voting. A woman clerk of the election division board reported on intimidation tactics saying that Republican workers actually walked into booths despite objections of the voters and helped them to vote. My grandfather asked that all the votes in that division be thrown out. An investigation was ordered, which revealed that 100 more votes were recorded than persons who voted. The court later discharged him.
It was FDR who first inspired my grandfather to want to practice law and to enter into politics. In the midst of the Depression he saw that the country was in dire need of political reform. Voter fraud was just one area of corruption that motivated him to become a judge. He was elected to the bench in 1957 and was in fact, the first magistrate in Philadelphia to hold a law degree. (This didn’t make him too popular with a young, hard-hitting police chief named Frank Rizzo or a young, brash Assistant D.A. named Arlen Specter, but I’ll reserve those “politics” for another time.)
As for this Election Day, despite all the cynicism, negative campaigning and corruption—all of which are as old as democracy itself—I plan to vote early…but not often.