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Vote Early and Often

Chicagoans tend to link "vote early and often" to either Al Capone, who is supposed to have said it around 1915, or Richard J. Daley, who may have said something like it in the 1950s. But a little research-even a conversation with someone from a different part of the country---casts some doubt.

Julius Zelzer: I am not 100 percent sure and frankly I think anyone who tells you they are is incorrect. I mean there's been multiple attributions of this quotation.

The refreshingly honest Julius Zelzer teaches American history at Boston University. Bostonians will tell you the phrase comes from the campaign song for their notoriously corrupt Mayor James Michael Curley, which begins: "vote early and often for Curley." Between 1914 and 1949, Curley served four terms as mayor, twice in Congress and once as governor of Massachusetts. His final stint as mayor came in the late nineteen forties, and he served five months of it in jail on federal corruption charges. Again, Julius Zelzer.

Zelzer: But there are many beyond Curley. The kinda one person who often comes up was Big Bill Thompson.

This could make a case for Chicago. Big Bill was William Hale Thompson, who served as mayor twice between 1915 and 1931. It's alleged that "vote early and often" credit-taker Al Capone helped return enough votes to get Thompson reelected. But Thompson doesn't seem to have originated the phrase either. Zelzer teaches the history of machine politics, where New York City and State play a starring role. Zelzer says he heard the phrase a lot when living in Albany, where one of the country's hardiest machines flourished for more than a century.
Zelzer: And it was a smaller machine than its counterpart in Tammany Hall but used all the same tactics and had amazing longevity, using tax assessments to make sure people voted the right way, allegations of voter fraud, again going into the 1970s and 80s and, you know, being right in the seat of New York State politics.

In his Political Dictionary, columnist William Safire attributes "vote early and often" to a New Yorker: attorney John Van Buren, second son of 8th US President Martin. He supposedly said it sometime in the 1840s, according to a Victorian book called "The Bench and the Bar: a Complete Digest of the Wit, Humor, Asperities and Amenites of the Law_. Sadly it's out of print. But the phrase seems to have been common by 1858, when it pops up in the New York Times and the Chicago Press and Tribune. Four years earlier, it had a more sinister application. In 1854, according to Civil War historians, a group of pro-slavery settlers from Missouri, called Border Ruffians, crossed into Kansas territory on election day "to vote early and often" on behalf of Kansas for slavery. It worked. So it's possible that voting early and often was a frontier technique as well as an urban one. And Julius Zelzer says it may have come to this country with the ancestors of politicians and voters alike: that is, by boat.

Zelzer: I even once heard it came from politics in Ireland, dating back-you know, pretty far back. Now I have no idea if that's true or not, but that's another rumor I've heard.

Northwestern University's Bill Savage has heard it too. He teaches Chicago literature, and says the fictional Southwest Side Irish bartender Mr. Dooley, created by 19th century writer Finley Peter Dunne, makes frequent reference to the concept of voting early and often, as do other writers.

Savage: There's a great line in Nelson Algren's book Chicago City on the Make where he talks about Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin standardizing the price of the vote, and how that was almost a civil service because it made things almost understandable and easy. (laughs)

Savage says works like this have woven the "vote early and often" into the literary history of Chicago, which is different from real life. Or is it?

Savage: I remember being told as a young man when I started voting to vote early and often and being told -oh, take your receipt to the saloon on the corner and you'll get a free drink-- this kind of thing. It all is part of one ongoing story of the city that gets told over and over again.

Parker: Wait, so that actually happened to you?

Savage: Oh yeah-people do that all-yesterday I got a free drink at a bar for voting.

On a final note, "early and often" is also the name of a peach-colored variety of daylily, but the person who named it seems to have been honoring…Mayor Curley of Boston. I'm Diantha Parker…Chicago Public Radio.

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