When the Confederacy Helped Launch Vote-By-Mail - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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The original vote-by-mail kerfuffle had to do with whether soldiers should be disenfranchised.

By Fiona Zublin

  • The first widespread use of vote-by-mail was for Civil War soldiers.
  • The Confederacy led the way, while adoption by Union states ran into all kinds of political and legal challenges.

As of Oct. 22, the U.S. Postal Service reported that 48,000 military absentee ballots had been returned — a 45 percent increase from the same date in 2016. And with an anticipated 1 in 5 military ballots going to the key swing state of Florida, those votes could end up deciding the election.

But in a very real sense, military votes have already been key in deciding the 2020 election, more dependent on mail-in ballots than any before it. Because military votes were responsible for making widespread mail-in ballots a legal reality in the first place, in an election 156 years ago.

While it wasn’t the first instance of voting by mail in America — that came ahead of the War of 1812 but was limited to Pennsylvania, and happened a few years later in New Jersey as well — the Civil War marked the advent of the right to a postal vote for a large population. At the time, suffrage was extremely limited in the U.S.: Only white men could vote, though previous requirements that they own property to be eligible had been slowly abolished over the decades preceding the war.

Then, as now, the roots of the conflict were likely more political than procedural.

The South was actually the trendsetter here: In the election of 1861, five of the 11 Confederate states allowed absentee ballots from soldiers, and over the next few years all but Texas would follow suit, according to historian Wilfred Buck Yearns. Another Confederate consideration as the war wore on was how to allow people who had fled their home states to vote, as more and more territory was occupied by the Union.

Confederate states were largely single party, though, and the Union’s path to mail-in voting was significantly more contentious. As the war began, Pennsylvania was the only state that allowed absentee ballots from soldiers, and even that saw constitutional challenges. “While the natural inclination of most citizens and elected officials was to secure the right to vote for soldiers fighting for their country, ” writes military expert Donald Inbody in The Soldier Vote, “when efforts to enfranchise those soldiers began, many states found that their own constitutions posed barriers.” Several state constitutions seemed to specify that voting required someone’s physical presence at a meeting, and certain concerns revolved around the possibility of election fraud should a ballot arrive by mail with no possibility for local election officials to verify who had filled it out.

The midterm elections of 1862 made it clear that this would be a big issue, allowing 20 Union states time to legalize forms of absentee balloting in advance of the 1864 presidential election. In some cases that meant sending election officials to personally collect ballots from military encampments and field hospitals. Some states, like Nevada — which became a state just nine days before the election took place, in perhaps the ultimate October surprise, were able to adjust easily while others had more trouble.

But then, as now, the roots of the conflict were likely more political than procedural. Amendments to state constitutions and new laws were routinely supported by Republican legislators and opposed by Democratic ones. Soldiers were thought to be a voting bloc largely supportive of incumbent President Abraham Lincoln, rather than his Democratic challenger, Gen. George McClellan, whose party officially advocated for brokering peace with the Confederacy, though the former Union commander himself favored continuing the war.

Abraham Lincoln Douglas Debate

Abraham Lincoln speaking during one of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Charleston, Illinois, Sept. 18, 1858.

Lincoln clearly thought that having soldiers vote would be in his interest. “Indiana is the only important State, voting in October, whose soldiers cannot vote in the field,” he wrote to Gen. William T. Sherman in September 1864. “Any thing you can safely do to let her soldiers, or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election, will be greatly in point. They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once.”

Soldier furloughs to vote were politicized too. Some accused political rivals of granting such leave only to soldiers who shared their political views, while there’s some evidence that soldiers from states that allowed for absentee ballots were annoyed that their chance at a furlough was curtailed because they didn’t need to go home to vote. While an estimated 1 million soldiers were serving at the time, only about 150,000 were able to vote absentee — and of those, 78 percent broke for Lincoln, who was reelected.

After the war, the issue lay dormant until World War I, when soldiers again needed to vote from the field — this time from overseas. Certain civilians, too, won the right to vote when far from home if their jobs kept them out of town: Traveling salesmen and railroad workers were among the constituencies lobbying for the right. Widespread mail voting for civilians became a political issue in the 1970s, with Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington switching almost entirely to mail voting in recent years. Now, not only can soldiers vote from overseas, but astronauts are able to vote from space.

And despite increased politicization of the right to vote by mail, it’s a right a large majority of Americans support, with 73 percent saying anyone should be able to vote by mail according to a poll conducted at the end of August. Lincoln would concur.

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