Friday, October 9, 2020

Absence Makes the Vote Go Yonder

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

President Trump has claimed that universal mail-in ballots will mean that no Republican will ever be elected again, but the original absentee ballots were introduced by Republicans in order to ensure their victory in the 1864 election. Between 1862 and 1864, every state in the Union except Illinois and Indiana passed a bill allowing active duty soldiers to cast ballots in their home election districts. Democrats pushed back, citing the potential for fraud and abuse. Nine state supreme courts heard cases regarding the constitutionality of the laws and they were ultimately struck down in four states. All told, approximately 150,000 out of 1 million Union soldiers voted in the election of 1864 under the new absentee voting laws. Lincoln carried a whopping 78% of the soldier vote, although, in the end, he probably would have won without them anyway.

New York passed its absentee voting law in April 1864. The rules were byzantine to say the least. In order to vote, a soldier had to authorize someone in their home district to cast their ballot on their behalf. In addition to their completed ballot, each soldier needed to sign a document granting power of attorney to a registered voter back home. The document needed to be signed by them, the surrogate voter, a witness, and their commanding officer. New York State dispatched representatives to military encampments to oversee the process and ensure the ballots made it back to their home districts.

New York State soldiers have voted in every war since. In the 1898 election during the Spanish American War, it wasn’t until December that the soldiers’ votes were counted, mostly because it took so long to ship them from Hawaii and the Philippines. By then the process had changed somewhat. Instead of having surrogate voters, soldiers would fill out and seal their ballots in a special envelope. All the ballots for the regiment would then be collected by the commanding officer, sealed inside a special pouch which was then sent to the secretary of state. The secretary was then responsible for sending off the competed ballots to each voters’ home election district to be included in the count.


Official war ballot, 1898

In the election of 1917, the soldier vote played a decisive role in two contests in the county. When the polls closed on election day, George A. Douglas, candidate for alderman in Elmira’s 10th ward, and his opponent were neck and neck with 401 votes for Douglas and 402 for his opponent. Then they counted the soldiers’ absentee ballots. Eight of the fourteen ballots were for Douglas, pushing him over the top. In Big Flats, Democrat Dan Lloyd and Republican John Markle had tied in the race for Assessor. The town’s two soldier voters won Lloyd the election. Chemung County’s soldier voters also voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment for women’s suffrage with 76 ballots in favor and 16 opposed. The ballot initiative still failed in Chemung County by 798 votes, but points for effort or at least feminism.


Alderman George A. Douglas, Elmira's 10th Ward

In 1919, a ballot initiative for civilian absentee voting was passed. Starting in 1920, voters who knew they would be out of town on election day owing to duty, business, or occupation could cast their vote by mail. Those permitted to vote absentee were subsequently expanded to include voters out of town for any reason as was as those too ill or infirm to make it to the polls; those caring for someone who is sick or physically disabled; residents or patients of a Veterans Health Administration Hospitals; people in jail awaiting trial; and people in jail for convictions other than felonies. Today, every state in the country has absentee ballots and several western states vote entirely by mail.

Although some have argued that absentee voting grants Democrats an advantage, a recent study by Stanford University showed that the party affiliations of absentee voters do not differ significantly from other voters in their states. Despite certain claims about fraud and abuse, voting by mail is actually quite safe. A study by the Washington Post found that, in 20 years and 250 million mail-in votes, there have been only 143 criminal convictions related to fraudulent absentee ballots.

If you are a resident of New York State and need to apply for an absentee ballot, you have until October 27 to request one from your local board of elections. Once you’ve filled your ballot out, you have until November 3rd to either mail it or drop it off at the board of elections or any polling site. Remember to vote in this and every election.


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