Arlington--genteel, good-government Arlington--has a cemetery vote.
It's right there on the official voters list, four voters, all alive and well: the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, his wife, the deputy superintendent and his wife. They have lodgings on the cemetery grounds and vote in nearby Wilson precinct.
And even if there are no ghosts among Arlington Cemetery voters, there are more than a few on the list of 78,184 voters officially registered in Arlington County.
Many are people who have moved but, under state law, remain on the rolls until they register elsewhere in Virginia or fail to vote four years in a row.
For a political canvasser trying to locate as many available voters as possible, that law can mean trouble. For instance, voter lists, which by law are open to the public, may show three couples in one high-rise apartment.
Three couples? Well, not exactly. You see, Couple A rented the apartment until the building went condo in 1979. Couple B bought the apartment, but has moved to Florida and is now renting the place to Couple C. But all three couples are still on the voter rolls.
Or what about the house that lists three men and two women, all in their 20s, all with different last names.
All five may be living there. All five may have left. One may be there, with someone who votes in New York.
And what are the relationships in such a household? The voter lists don't discuss that. In an age of two-surname couples, reconstituted families and such, that gap in the data leads to many mis-addressed letters, embarrassing phone checks and much gossip among precinct workers.
Consider a few actual cases, without actual names:
Joe Doe and Susan Smith registered at the same house at the same time. If they're both 26, are they married? Does it matter? What if they're both 45?
A household includes George and Helen Jones, both in their 50s, and Sally Jones Smith, 26. Does that mean Sally's marriage collapsed and she went home to mother?
According to the monthly list of changes, Shirley Smith has moved from the house she was sharing with Jim Doe. Paul Jones has registered at Shirley's new address. Is Jim now available?
Joe Jones, in his 30s, lives with Margaret Smith, 65. She moves to a condo and two younger men move in with Joe.
The social permutations are endless, and the speculation, too.
In a broader perspective, though, the lists do give a personal touch to those maddening "demographic" trends. In Arlington, for instance, demographers say young singles are supplanting older residents. A look at voter rolls for four blocks of garden apartments on Key Boulevard brings that home graphically. Two years ago nearly all the voters were senior citizens. Now about a third are young residents. And when those young renters start families, voter lists show where they move. A few migrate to North Arlington, but more go off to Prince William County or Burke Centre in Fairfax County.
One trend does not show up: empty-nesters. On the voter lists the nests are still full. A couple in their 50s may be listed with two, three or even six grown children at home. It takes a phone check to learn that the oldest is in California, the next has moved to the District, the third is in graduate school and the last left for college this fall.
Four more ghosts. Just how many are there? Probably thousands. Nobody knows. Since January 1980, 9,163 voters, nearly 12 percent of the total, have been purged from the Arlington roster after not having voted for four years. Most of them, predictably, were young people recently come, quickly gone.
Canvassers have found that in some high-rise apartments, about one-third of those registered have gone. When the county recently changed the polling place in Columbia precinct, which has many rental units, notices were mailed first-class to all voters there. Nearly half were returned by the postal service, Registrar Peggy Wilkinson says.
All in all, Arlington may have only 55,000 to 60,000 live, resident voters, not 78,184. If so, a turnout of about 40,000, which many expect on Tuesday, would be fairly respectable.
Which brings up one more telling point. Precinct bosses in many cities would drool over a list of registered voters one-third of which are ghosts. Yet Wilkinson cannot remember a case of vote fraud.
That proves how genteel Arlington really is: its cemetery vote is constant. Just four.
Carrie Johnson is a freelance writer who has combed through endless voter lists as a volunteer campaign worker in Arlington.