But November’s presidential election actually isn’t the first to raise questions about how Americans might vote without coming to the polls. The debate today mirrors the heated partisan rhetoric of the 1860s. Never before had so many voters been away from their homes during elections, and the idea of permitting soldiers to use absentee ballots touched off a rancorous national debate. Then as now, it hinged on balancing concern about fraud with the right to vote. Ultimately, American democracy was greatly enriched by expanding access to the ballot and affirming that this right was at the core of U.S. citizenship.
At the beginning of the Civil War, only one state — Pennsylvania — permitted soldiers to vote in the field. In 1861, thousands of Pennsylvania soldiers voted for state and local offices from their military camps as far away as Virginia. Unfortunately, fraud permeated the elections. One regiment allegedly cast a 900-vote majority for a Republican candidate from Philadelphia even though the regiment had only 60 or 70 men from the city. “The frauds were very gross,” noted Philadelphia diarist Sidney George Fisher, and “all parties were guilty.”
Disgust with such fraud was bipartisan, and when the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for men to vote outside their districts, the decision was not controversial. The Philadelphia Press praised it, arguing that the “wisdom of the decision … will be acknowledged by every thinking person, and by none sooner or readier than by the patriotic officers and soldiers, whom it at first blush appears to deprive temporarily of the elective franchise.”
Yet, while Pennsylvania disenfranchised its state’s soldiers, several states to the west — including Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota — extended the ballot to their soldiers. In some states Republicans supported this legislation, while in other states Democrats were the prime movers.
The result of the 1862 midterm elections, however, polarized the issue along party lines. Democrats made sweeping gains, picking up more than 30 seats in Congress, the governorships of New York and New Jersey and majorities in the state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Indiana. Many Republicans believed that they had suffered these defeats because their voters were serving in the Army, largely unable to vote. President Abraham Lincoln complained that the “Democrats were left in a majority by our friends going to the war.” Republican leaders nationwide quickly decided that soldiers ought to have the right to vote.
Over the ensuing two years, Republicans and Democrats engaged in a heated partisan debate over whether to enfranchise the millions of men who were serving in the Union armies.
Democrats argued that taking the ballot to the battlefield would open up the door to fraud, corruption and misinformation. “I am aware that it is important that the soldier should vote,” said one Pennsylvania Democrat, “but … there is a still more important matter to the liberties of this country — that the purity and sanctity of the ballot box shall be preserved.”
Some Democrats worried that the Republicans would control the Army vote. A Maryland Democrat fretted that soldiers would not be able to vote freely, because their first duty “is absolute obedience to his superior officers.” Moreover, soldiers might be uninformed on key issues, as the governor of New York put it, “if they have not the same freedom in reading public journals, accorded to their brethren at home.”
But Republicans defended soldier suffrage on the grounds that the “gallant … patriot soldier, who heroically risks life itself to perpetuate free Government, should not be robbed of his right to have his voice heard in the selection of those who shall administer it.” A Maryland Republican chastised Democrats for wanting to disfranchise those “who have gone to the front to defend your institutions” while placing “the destinies of your land into the hands of the traitors that remain behind.”
In other words, it was unpatriotic and unjust to oppose absentee voting for soldiers.
The Republicans’ expansive conception of citizenship carried the day. By 1864, 19 Northern states permitted soldiers in the field to vote. Never before had absentee voting existed on such a grand scale in the United States. Some states authorized soldiers to vote at polling places set up in the field — more than 150,000 soldiers voted this way. Other states required soldiers to mail ballots home to be counted as part of the “home vote.”
Unfortunately, some of the Democrats’ concerns proved prescient. In the 1864 presidential election, Republican leaders sometimes deprived soldiers of access to Democratic campaign literature. One soldier complained that his regiment received only Republican newspapers and that “some other regiments had no opportunity to vote any but the Republican ticket.”
Democratic soldiers claimed to be discriminated against in other ways as well. One Illinois soldier noted that his regiment was canvassed “to see how many would vote for Lincoln if they got a chance to go home.” A Philadelphian similarly claimed “that Democrats were threatened to be sent to the front if they voted.” A number of Democratic officers were even court-martialed or dismissed from the service around the time of the election. One Massachusetts artilleryman noted just before the election, “if I was a civillian [sic] I would say what I thought about it but at present I think it better to keep silent.”
Ironically, Democratic election workers perpetrated the greatest fraud of the election when they tampered with absentee military ballots in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before mailing them to New York to be counted. Although they were civilians, these men were arrested and tried before military tribunals, where in one case a judge advocate stated that the “enormity of the fraud is appalling” and “merits the extreme penalty of death.” The commissioners arrested in Baltimore were sentenced to life in prison, although their sentence was commuted three years later; the commissioners arrested in Washington were acquitted.
Despite the various acts of misconduct perpetrated during the 1864 election, Lincoln and his party accomplished a great feat for civil liberty when they enfranchised Union soldiers. Indeed, their actions marked an unprecedented expansion of political rights. Even more importantly, the policy of enfranchising soldiers laid the groundwork for the 14th and 15th Amendments by affirming that the right to vote was at the core of what it meant to be a U.S. citizen.
Ironically, most Northern states repealed their soldier suffrage legislation after the Civil War, and in 1915, only six states still permitted soldiers to vote. During World War I, absentee voting expanded again and by 1918, 28 states permitted absentee voting. By the 1940s, nearly every state had provisions for absentee voting, but no one had yet devised an effective way to collect votes from around the world.
Partisan battles erupted anew during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt began pushing for federal legislation to take the ballot to the front. (He saw this as key to his 1944 reelection.) The debate that ensued followed the pattern of the Civil War era, with Republicans and Democrats arguing about citizenship, voter fraud, intimidation and coercion.
Civil rights activists saw the military vote as a way to expand voting rights to black servicemen, while one Tennessee Democrat in Congress claimed that the proposed legislation sought “to bring about social equality of the races in the South.” If they did not get their way, several southern Democrats threatened to bolt the party and form a third party so that the presidential election would be thrown into the House of Representatives.
Congress passed a compromise measure that permitted soldiers and sailors to either vote a federal “war ballot” or under their state statutes. (Roosevelt was upset about this measure and allowed it to become law without his signature.) Voter turnout among servicemen and women in 1944 was relatively low — about 30 percent.
Today, absentee voting is an ordinary part of the electoral process in the United States, for service members and civilians alike. In fact, five western states conduct elections by mail. Today’s debate about broadening access to absentee ballots amid a pandemic should be less controversial than the Civil War era struggle over creating an entirely new system. As that history shows, despite absentee voting’s somewhat sordid past, voting by mail can be a useful way to ensure that citizens are able to exercise their rights even in turbulent times