Is Mail-In Voting New in the United States?: It Actually Goes Back to the Civil War

Let’s say you go home for the hol­i­days. Anything’s pos­si­ble, who knows. It’s a wild world. Let’s say you get there and some­one starts lay­ing on you that trip about how Q Con­tin­u­um said mail-in vot­ing was orches­trat­ed by satan­ic cables from Anar­chist HQ. Let’s say you over­hear some­thing more down-to-earth, like how if mail-in vot­ing hap­pens, bil­lions of peo­ple will vote ille­gal­ly… even more peo­ple than live in the coun­try, which is how you’ll know….

Maybe you’ll want to speak up and say, hey I know some­thing about this top­ic, except then maybe you real­ize you don’t actu­al­ly know much, but you know some­thing ain’t right with this talk and maybe it’s prob­a­bly good to have a func­tion­ing Postal Ser­vice and maybe peo­ple should be able to vote. In such sit­u­a­tions (who can say how often these things hap­pen), you might wish to have a lit­tle infor­ma­tion at the ready, to edu­cate your­self and share with oth­ers.

You might share infor­ma­tion about how mail-in vot­ing has been around since 1775. It has worked pret­ty well at scale since “about 150,000 of the 1 mil­lion Union sol­diers were able to vote absen­tee in the 1864 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in what became the first wide­spread use of non-in per­son vot­ing in Amer­i­can his­to­ry,” Alex Seitz-Wald explains at NBC News. Since the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has man­aged to make mail-in vot­ing work for sol­diers serv­ing away from home for over 150 years, “it’s now eas­i­er in some ways for a Marine in Afghanistan to vote than it is for an Amer­i­can stuck at home dur­ing the COVID-19 lock­down.”

“Some part of the mil­i­tary has been vot­ing absen­tee since the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion,” Don­ald Inbody, for­mer Navy Cap­tain turned polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Texas State Uni­ver­si­ty, tells NBC News. Inbody refers to one of the first doc­u­ment­ed instances, when Con­ti­nen­tal Army sol­diers vot­ed in a town meet­ing by proxy in New Hamp­shire. But his­to­ry is com­pli­cat­ed, and “mail-in vot­ing has worked just fine so shut up” needs some nuance.

In the very same elec­tion in which 150,000 Union sol­diers mailed their bal­lots, Lin­coln urged Sher­man to send troops sta­tioned in Demo­c­ra­t­ic-con­trolled Indiana—which had banned absen­tee voting—back to their home states so that they could vote. The prac­tice has always had its vocal crit­ics and suf­fered accu­sa­tions of fraud from all sides, though lit­tle evi­dence seems to have emerged. Absen­tee vot­ing helped win the Civ­il War, Blake Stil­well argues at, in spite of a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry alleg­ing fraud that might have unseat­ed Lin­coln.

There are sev­er­al rem­nants from the time of care­ful record-keep­ing, like the pre-print­ed enve­lope above that “con­tained a tal­ly sheet of votes from the sol­diers of High­land Coun­ty the Field Hos­pi­tal 2nd Divi­sion 23rd Army Corps,” notes the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Postal Muse­um. (The draw­ing at the top shows Penn­syl­va­nia sol­diers vot­ing in 1864.) And this is all fas­ci­nat­ing stuff. But sol­diers are actu­al­ly absent, which is why they vote absen­tee, right? I mean, if you’re at home, why can’t you just go to the polling place in the glob­al pan­dem­ic in your city that closed all the polling places?

It’s true that civil­ian mail-in vot­ing often works dif­fer­ent­ly from mil­i­tary absen­tee vot­ing. While every state offers some ver­sion, some restrict it to vot­ers tem­porar­i­ly out of state or suf­fer­ing an ill­ness. Cur­rent­ly, only “30 states have adopt­ed ‘no-excuse absen­tee bal­lot­ing,’ which allows any­one to request an absen­tee bal­lot,” Nina Strochlic reports at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. State laws vary fur­ther among those 30.

“In 2000,” for exam­ple, “Ore­gon became the first state to switch to ful­ly vote-by-mail elec­tions.” Things have rapid­ly changed, how­ev­er. “In the face of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, vot­ers in every state but Mis­sis­sip­pi and Texas were allowed to vote by mail or by absen­tee bal­lot in this year’s pri­maries.” If you live in the U.S. (or out­side it) and don’t know what hap­pened next… bless you. It involves defund­ing the post office instead of the police.

Vot­ing by mail has expand­ed to meet major crises through­out his­to­ry, says Alex Keyssar, his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at the Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard. “That’s the log­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry” and “we are not in nor­mal times.” If a high­ly infec­tious dis­ease that has killed at least 200,000 Amer­i­cans on top of ongo­ing vot­er sup­pres­sion and an elec­tion secu­ri­ty cri­sis and mas­sive civ­il unrest and eco­nom­ic tur­moil aren’t rea­sons enough to expand the vote-by-mail fran­chise to every state, I couldn’t say what is.

Should only sol­diers have the abil­i­ty to vote eas­i­ly? I imag­ine some­one might say YES, loud­ly over the cen­ter­piece, because vot­ing is a priv­i­lege not a right!

You, empow­ered pur­vey­or of accu­rate infor­ma­tion, under­stander of absen­tee vot­ing his­to­ry, change-mak­er, will pull out your pock­et Con­sti­tu­tion and ask some­one to find the word “priv­i­lege” in amend­ments that start with “The right of cit­i­zens of the Unit­ed States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the Unit­ed States or by any State,” etc. That’ll show ’em. But if the gam­bit fails to impress, you’ve still got a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why vot­ing by mail may not be one of the signs of the end times.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take The Near Impos­si­ble Lit­er­a­cy Test Louisiana Used to Sup­press the Black Vote (1964)

Three Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ments by Frank Zap­pa: Vote, Brush Your Teeth, and Don’t Do Speed

Sal Khan & the Mup­pets’ Grover Explain the Elec­toral Col­lege

The Psy­chol­o­gy That Leads Peo­ple to Vote for Extrem­ists & Auto­crats: The The­o­ry of Cog­ni­tive Clo­sure

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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