Politics

Nevada’s Dennis Hof and Why People Vote for the Dead

Under Nevada law, the responsibility of replacing a deceased winning candidate falls to the commissioners of the county or counties the candidate was elected to represent. The replacement must be of the same political party as the winner. By a strange turn of events, then, Nevada Republicans seem to have gotten the best of both worlds: A brash candidate did the work of motivating the base and attracting press coverage to what would have otherwise most likely been an unremarkable local election, but legislators themselves will never have to deal with the candidate’s unbecoming ways in Carson City.

The past few decades have been rife with examples of posthumous electoral victory. Many of these races end up in the realm of the macabre because ballots have already been printed by the time a candidate passes away; also, the death-defying campaigns are often aided by the deceased’s surviving political allies.

In 2016, Oceanside, California, reelected its city treasurer by a 6 percent margin a month after he died of natural causes. Between his death and his election, he received a ringing endorsement from Jerry Kern, a sitting city-council member: “Vote for him anyway” so the city council could appoint a replacement and avoid dealing with his activist opponent, whom Kern considered a troublemaker.

Jenny Oropeza, a California state senator from a heavily Democratic district, died in October 2010. A week later, the California Democratic Party paid for a flyer to be sent to voters urging them to reelect Oropeza regardless. Oropeza won 58 percent of the vote, triggering a special election in which a Democratic candidate ultimately won. (Appointment systems like the one in Nevada are in place to fill vacancies in only 22 state legislatures; 25 states rely on special elections, and the remaining three use a hybrid system.)

In Pennsylvania, James Rhoades, a Republican state senator, won reelection weeks after dying in a car crash in 2008. Rhoades’s opponents temporarily halted their campaign in a show of respect, but the Rhoades campaign pressed on almost immediately with TV and radio ads encouraging residents to vote for the dead candidate. Rhoades won in a landslide, and a Republican pulled a similarly dramatic victory in the special election that followed.

Then, in 2012, in Alabama alone, two elections were won by candidates who were no longer living. Since the 1970s, at least two posthumous winners of congressional races have been replaced by their wife. This is far from a complete list: Other famous deceased victors include Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress, and Bill Nojay, the New York State assemblyman who committed suicide the day he was supposed to turn himself in to the FBI.

Hof appears to be this year’s only posthumous election winner. (Scott Maclay, a candidate for sheriff in Spokane County, Washington, who legally changed his name to mock his opponent, died in a motorcycle accident in September; he received 13 percent of votes.) But he wasn’t the only dead candidate to play a role in the 2018 midterms.

In 1972, an Alaska state senator named Don Young lost a U.S. House race to the incumbent, Nick Begich, who had disappeared on a campaign flight—but who had not been declared dead—three weeks before the election. Young won the special election to replace Begich. Now Young appears to have won election to his 24th term as Alaska’s only representative in the House. He’s the chamber’s longest-serving member.

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