Elections during the Civil War


Jonathan W. White, Christopher Newport University, told the Voice of America Russian Service how elections were held during the American Civil War

Margo Gontar: Was the electoral process of the mid-19th century different from that of the present?

Jonathan White: This was the first and only time that a US presidential election was held at the height of the civil war. It should also be understood that then the elections lasted for a whole year, and all the previous four years, every month or so, elections were held somewhere – to local authorities, to Congress, elections of governors.

Then, for the first time, an absentee vote of this magnitude was held. Before the American Civil War, only two states gave their soldiers the opportunity to vote away from home: Pennsylvania and New Jersey did so during the 1812 War (with the British Empire – “GA”). New Jersey later repealed the law, and by the time the Civil War began, Pennsylvania was the only state to allow absentee voting. Therefore, the Pennsylvania soldiers voted in October 1861 in local and state elections.

Later, in early 1862, other states also began to pass laws allowing their soldiers to vote far from home. At the time of the presidential elections in 1864, there were 19 such states. Depending on when such laws came into force, the military in different states of the United States could vote in local and state elections in 1862, 1863, or 1864.

M.G .: Only the military had the opportunity to vote in absentia?

D. U .: Yes. If you were a civilian and, for example, went on a trip, you could not vote in absentia. For your vote to be counted, you needed to vote on election day at your place of permanent residence.

M.G .: How was the absentee voting organized for the soldiers?

D. U .: There were two ways soldiers could vote, depending on their state law. They could vote in their unit or send the ballot home by mail. Of the 19 US states that at that time gave soldiers the right to vote away from home, four required soldiers to send ballots by mail. The other 15 US states were allowed to vote in the units where polling stations were organized.

Sometimes ballots were used to vote. In some cases, soldiers simply wrote the candidate’s name on a piece of paper and threw it into the ballot boxes. Often, cigar boxes or other boxes that came to hand were used for this.

The elections took place directly on the territory of the military camp, at the company or regiment level, in the captain’s or colonel’s tent.

According to rough estimates, about 150 thousand people voted at such polling stations. Another 80,000 soldiers voted by mail, according to the estimates of one of the veterans of the Army of the North. But it’s hard to say for sure: then they did not keep a detailed record of the ballots sent by mail, they were counted along with the rest.

M.G .: Did the bulletins of that time differ from the modern ones?

D. U .: The ballots were completely different then. Now when you go to vote, all candidates from any party will be on the same list from which you choose. During the Civil War, each party printed its own ballots and listed only its party’s candidates. So you just mailed that ballot and voted that way.

When you went to vote, you went to a representative of your party and received a ballot from him. It could also be cut from a newspaper. At that time, they had a specific political affiliation: in each city there were newspapers of the Republican and Democratic parties, which printed the list of candidates for their party. It should have been cut out and voted on. This was the newsletter.

M.G .: So voters could simply send such a ballot as it is, not highlighting anything, and the very fact of this meant that they voted for all the party’s candidates?

D. U .: Quite right. This meant that they voted for all candidates from the party. If they did not like someone on the list of the newsletter, they could cross out his name, and then write another one on top. So among the old bulletins there are often similar ones – with blacked out names.

M.G .: Why was the election not rescheduled despite the height of the Civil War?

D. U .: Among the representatives of the US Democratic Party were those who believed that President Abraham Lincoln might decide to postpone the election, but he obviously had no intention of postponing it. I think Lincoln reasoned like this: “I am fighting for democracy, and canceling or postponing elections is contrary to the goals of this war.”

M.G .: What were the problems and difficulties associated with holding elections at that time? Have there been any cases of fraud?

D. U .: At the time, the elections were accompanied by a lot of violence and intimidation. When you went to a representative of your party and took a ballot paper that was of a certain color, everyone knew who you were voting for. Therefore, it was easy to intimidate people in order to force them to vote in a certain way. In the army, if you were a Democrat, and your commander was a Republican, and if you did not want to create a conflict situation, you could decide not to vote at all or to vote in a different way than you intended, simply because of pressure from the commander.

The elections were then very noisy, there were many drunks. If you voted in a city like Baltimore, it was usually a large gathering of people with significant alcohol consumption and occasional violent outbreaks. Now, if you work for any of the candidates, you cannot be at the polling station, and then there were no such restrictions.

In 1864, there were cases of fraud. So, some US states sent their authorized representatives to battle formations to collect bulletins. For example, the states of New York and Pennsylvania did this. Five of these New York State Commissioners, sent by the Governor to collect ballots, were arrested in Baltimore and Washington on charges of falsifying ballots and sending Democratic ballots on behalf of fictitious soldiers. According to some estimates, they forged up to 10,000 ballots.

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