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The Debate Over Mail-In Voting Dates Back to the Civil War

In 1864, Democrats and Republicans clashed over legislation allowing soldiers to cast their ballots from the front

Anti-war Democrats objected to mail-in voting, citing widespread fears of voter fraud, as well as intimidation on the part of the pro-Republican military. (Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Library of Congress and public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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Three months before the 1864 election, President Abraham Lincoln penned a pessimistic prediction of his political future, writing, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” Come November, however, the Republican incumbent carried the election with ease, claiming 212 electoral votes to anti-war Democrat George B. McClellan’s 21 and winning the popular vote by a margin of more than 400,000.

The U.S. Army’s decisive capture of Atlanta in early September reinvigorated Lincoln’s campaign, offering the war-weary nation hope that victory was within reach. But military success wasn’t the only factor working in the president’s favor: By election day, 19 Northern states had passed legislation allowing soldiers to vote from the field—a polarizing move first “encouraged” by Lincoln two years prior, when he was experiencing similar concerns over the midterm election’s outcome, says Bob Stein, director of Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership, to History.com’s Jessica Pearce Rotondi. (In the Confederacy, meanwhile, six Southern states legalized absentee voting between 1861 and 1862.)

Of the one million U.S. soldiers fighting in the war, around 150,000 ended up voting in absentia. As historian Donald S. Inbody writes in The Soldier Vote: War, Politics, and the Ballot in America, “many” men received leave to return home and vote in person, precluding the need for absentee ballots. But the political furor surrounding the issue still disenfranchised a significant number of soldiers.

According to Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, the main methods used to vote from the front varied by state but included sending mail-in ballots or tally sheets, designating an at-home proxy, and establishing makeshift polling places at battlefield camps and hospitals.

Seventy-eight percent of the military men who exercised their right to vote absentee opted for Lincoln. Comparatively, only 54 percent of civilians voted for the incumbent.

Soldiers’ support of Lincoln reflected their desire to continue fighting until the Confederacy was defeated. In the words of one Nebraska soldier, “It would be strange indeed if, after more than three years of hard service to sustain the unity and integrity of the government, they had turned square about and said, ‘We are wrong, and this war is a failure.’”

Illustration of soldiers voting in 1864
Drawing of Pennsylvania soldiers voting by William Waud, published in Harper's Weekly, October 29, 1864 (Library of Congress)

The 1864 election marked “the first widespread use of non-in-person voting in American history,” per Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News. Much like today, the practice proved highly contentious, with opinions largely falling along partisan lines.

“In most states where Democrats dominated the state legislature, absentee voting was not approved,” Inbody explains in The Soldier Vote. “In most states where Republicans were in the majority, absentee voting for soldiers was passed.”

Wisconsin state senator F.O. Thorpe, a leading Democrat of the state’s pro-peace “Copperhead” faction, aptly summarized his party’s position, accusing the Republicans of scheming to “gain some great advantage to their party in the future.” In addition to citing fears of widespread fraud, Democrats across the nation argued that the military’s pro-Republican bent—exacerbated by the emphasis placed on following superiors’ orders—would lead to the suppression of Democratic soldiers’ votes.

These claims weren’t entirely unfounded. As historian Jonathan W. White pointed out for the New York Times in 2014, army officers granted Republican soldiers furlough to travel home and vote, but kept Democrats at the front. Some men who made derogatory comments about Lincoln or the Emancipation Proclamation were actually court-martialed.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton employed the full power of the War Department to “bring military voters into line, making sure that they voted for Lincoln—or kept their Democratic opinions to themselves,” according to White. Once, the secretary dismissed 20 quartermaster clerks who had endorsed McClellan, snidely remarking, “When a young man receives his pay from an administration and spends his evenings denouncing it in offensive terms, he cannot be surprised if the administration prefers a friend on the job.”

Towing the line between criticizing military heavy handedness and denigrating soldiers themselves proved difficult for Democrats, whose vocal accusations of Republican interference ultimately painted the party as anti-soldier and eroded voters’ support.

New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat who vetoed an 1863 absentee soldier-voting bill as “antithetical to republicanism and … military effectiveness,” per historian David A. Collins, learned this lesson firsthand. Though he initially suggested that allowing political influence to cloud the army could raise the “danger that the troops would be rendered worthless as soldiers, and corrupted and depraved as citizens,” he soon changed his tune, signing a slightly amended version of the legislation in time for the 1864 election.

Ohio soldier's absentee ballot
Civil War–era cover for mailing Ohio's 1864 state election tally sheet from out-of-state military voters (National Postal Museum)

Outside of the aforementioned military intimidation, experts know of no proven instances of widespread fraud among Civil War soldiers. In fact, reports Dustin Waters for the Washington Post, the most egregious example of voter fraud in the 1864 election was a conspiracy organized by around 20 McClellan supporters. Merchant Orville Wood, a Lincoln voter tasked with determining how troops from his hometown were faring with mail-in voting, thwarted the plot, which involved forging the signatures of “active enlisted men, wounded and dead soldiers, and officers who never existed” and shipping crates of fraudulent ballots to be counted in New York. A military commission tried the group’s ringleaders less than two weeks before Election Day.

During the trial, a judge denounced the co-conspirators’ scheme as deserving of “the severest penalty known to the court.” (The president personally approved the pair’s recommended sentence of life in prison.) He added, “The most sacred rights of the brave men who are absent from their homes periling their lives in the face of the enemy to uphold our liberties, are imperiled, and fraudulent votes art sought to be given against the cause for which they have been periling their lives.”

The Civil War marked the first time the nation implemented mail-in voting on a large scale—but the practice was not without precedent. As Inbody writes in The Soldier Vote, Pennsylvania allowed soldiers to submit absentee ballots during the War of 1812. New Jersey passed similar legislation but repealed it in 1820. A similar pattern of peacetime passivity emerged following the Civil War’s end, with states either repealing absentee voting laws or allowing them to expire. Decisive legislation on the issue only arrived during World War II.

“Without war,” the historian notes, “interest in the soldier vote had waned.”

Despite debate over the mechanics and ethics of Civil War–era mail-in voting, the process—for soldiers from Minnesota, at least—was surprisingly similar to that of today.

“They marked their ballot, stuck it in an envelope, mailed it back to whatever county they were from,” Inbody tells NBC News. “Then [county officials] dropped it into the ballot box with all the rest and counted them like all the rest.”

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