John Kennedy O’Hara spent most of 2003 picking up garbage in city parks and cleaning public toilets as part of his sentence for illegal voting in Brooklyn. Also, he had to pay a fine and restitution amounting to $15,192. His supposed crime was that he registered to vote using the address of a girlfriend on 47th Street in Sunset Park, where he claimed to live part of the time. But he also maintained a residence 14 blocks away. While this sounds like pretty serious punishment for virtually nothing — the state election laws are so remarkably elastic on matters of residency that a former head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party was actually living in Queens during his reign — we cannot be sure if Mr. O’Hara got more than his unfair share. There are, after all, very few people to compare him with. Practically no one. It appears that the last person to be convicted of illegal voting in New York State before Mr. O’Hara was the abolitionist and suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who cast a ballot in Rochester in 1872, flagrantly disregarding that she was a woman and therefore not allowed to do so. She was not sentenced to pick up garbage in the parks, but was fined $100. She never paid.
Mr. O’Hara, a lawyer, an idealist, a gadfly, did not necessarily have Anthony’s laser focus. But he was a chronic nuisance to the Brooklyn Democratic machine, elements of which were, for many years, as crooked as the hind leg of a dog. He also feuded with former allies in the reform movement, which is the custom among reformers; the first item on the agenda of reformers who come to power is The Split, followed by The Betrayal. Or maybe it is the other way around.
In any event, Mr. O’Hara was prosecuted for illegal voting when he was on the outs with the machine and with the reformers. The Brooklyn district attorney at the time, Charles J. Hynes, assigned a homicide prosecutor to the O’Hara illegal voting case. There was, it should be noted, no shortage of murders in Brooklyn at the time. He was tried three times. Once a conviction was overturned. The second time the jury hung. The third time, it nailed him.