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Unsure about voting by mail? The U.S. military has done it since the Civil War

Unsure about voting by mail? The U.S. military has done it since the Civil War

The pushback against mailed ballots has remained the same all these years with critics raising the same points touted by President Trump and his allies today.

During the 1860s, at the peak of the Civil War, Republicans led by President Abraham Lincoln proposed giving Union soldiers a chance to cast their votes from the battlefield. The Democratic side raged against the proposition, citing rampant fraud and "a scheme" by Republicans "to gain some great advantage to their party." Ultimately, 150,000 of the 1 million Union soldiers voted absentee in the 1864 presidential election, making it the first widespread use of non-in-person voting in American history. Now here we are, almost a century and a half later, caught up a similar war and a new debate over voting by mail.



 

As the nation faces an election that will define our fate in the midst of a global pandemic, the call for voting by mail increases day by day. However, the suggestion faces an equally strong pushback despite it obviously being the safer option for voters. According to NBC News, in some ways, right now a Marine in Afghanistan would find it easier to vote than the average American taking shelter at home during the pandemic. Aware of this fact, some lawmakers and advocates are now looking into the same rules that allow the Marine to cast their ballot a model for how the upcoming presidential election could be conducted if the current crisis continues.



 

"Some part of the military has been voting absentee since the American Revolution," said Donald Inbody, a retired Navy captain. Inbody, who went on to a career in academia as a political science professor at Texas State University, continued to speak of how soldiers cast absentee votes during the Civil war, especially those from Minnesota. "They marked their ballot, stuck it in an envelope, mailed it back to whatever county they were from," he said. "Then (county officials) dropped it into the ballot box with all the rest and counted them like all the rest."



 

Although during the Civil war only Republican-controlled states allowed absentee voting, by World War II, every state had adopted the same. The military was responsible for about 3.2 million absentee ballots cast at the time, which amounted to almost seven percent of the total electorate in the 1944 presidential election. However, the pushback against mailed ballots has remained the same all these years with critics raising the same points touted by President Trump and his allies today.



 

"No law has been devised in any State in which the suffrage has been given to citizens in military service that did not leave room for the grossest of frauds. Every safeguard by which legislation has striven to preserve the purity of franchise is thrown down; and, as human nature, the inevitable tendency is to inaugurate a system of fraud," The Nation magazine warned in 1866. And yet, according to experts, there are no proven instances of widespread absentee voting fraud during the Civil War or any later conflicts. 



 

According to Alex Keyssar, a history professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, today Americans can trace their ability to vote by mail to soldiers who were deployed to Europe during the World Wars. Lawmakers began expanding the absentee voting system setup for soldiers overseas to Americans living abroad for work starting World War I, said Keyssar. "Before that, there had really been a close adherence to residency requirements and voting near home," he continued. "It starts with soldiers, but then the same logic applies to others who, because of their work, are unable to be in town on Election Day. And the thought was they should not be disenfranchised as a result."



 

Now, in these pandemic times, some members of Congress are looking into expanding the voting rights given to members of the military and other citizens living overseas to all Americans. "It is easier to vote from overseas than in the U.S. in a lot of ways. Domestic is a quagmire of politicization and a victim of partisan politics, whereas overseas and military voting is not," said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, the president and CEO of the U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote Initiative. Democratic Sens. 



 

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