Absentee Voting in the Civil War
By Lynn Heidelbaugh
Curator, History Department
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Some of the eligible voters from Highland County, Ohio were not at home for the state election in October 1864. Service with the Union army had brought them to Atlanta, Georgia. However, with a recent provision enacted by the Ohio legislature, they were able to vote absentee. This pre-printed envelope contained a tally sheet of votes from the soldiers of Highland County at the Field Hospital 2nd Division 23rd Army Corps.
During the Civil War, Ohio extended the vote to military personnel stationed outside of their home districts. Precedents dated to Pennsylvania’s 1813 legislation during the War of 1812 (reenacted in 1839) and New Jersey in 1815. Between 1861 and 1862 six of the eleven Confederate states granted absentee balloting for the military. For Northern states, the question about voting rose as the sheer number of soldiers and sailors increased.
In June 1862 Missouri was the first in the Union to make allowances. The issue gained urgency in anticipation of the 1864 national election. Debates in the state legislatures followed party interests. Politicians tended to support out-of-state military suffrage if these votes were expected to favor the party, and the military electorate leaned towards the Republican candidates. Most of the states in the Union granted absentee voting for its military service members in time for the 1864 presidential race between incumbent Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democratic candidate George McClellan.
Each state also had to figure out how the men at the front would submit their votes. Mailing proxy votes, ballots or tally sheets was part of the 1864 absentee voting procedures for Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia (Carter pp. 2-15). Soldiers and sailors voted in camps and hospitals under onsite inspection by appointed clerks or state officials. For instance, Pennsylvania officials prepared mailing materials for conveying the votes gathered at the front. State official David McKelvy listed “Poll Books and tally lists, copies of laws, detachments, envelopes and 960 12 cent P.O. stamps and 320 3 cent P.O. stamps” in the account of his trip to oversee voting in the field (McKelvy p. 390).
Ohio produced envelopes for both the state and national elections. Much like the envelope for the October 1864 state election, the upper left corner of the envelope was marked “presidential election” for use with the national ballot in November. The covers could be carried by the post office or by an express company. The war ballots for this state election included seats for congressional representatives and the secretary of state. The absentee vote in this election made up nine percent of the vote (Beaton p. 77). In the presidential election, Ohio’s qualified military absentee voters (white men over the age of 21) cast 12 percent of all ballots (Beaton p. 78). The majority of military and civilian Ohioans voted for the re-election of President Lincoln.
- Beaton, Josiah. Voting in the Field: A Forgotten Chapter of the Civil War. Boston: Plimpton Press, 1915.
- Carter, Russ W. War Ballots: Military Voting by Mail from the Civil War to WWII. Military Postal History Society, 2005.
- Inbody, Donald S. “Voting and the American Military.”
- McKelvy, David, Margaret McKelvy Bird and Daniel W. Crofts. “Notes and Documents: Soldier Voting in 1864: The David McKelvy Diary.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 115. No. 3 (Jul. 1991) pp. 371-413.
- Miles, Donna. “Servicemembers to Follow Long Absentee Voting Tradition.” American Forces Press Service. (Sept. 16, 2008)
- Previts, Fred. “Battlefield Ballots: The 1864 Presidential Election.” Timeline: Ohio Historical Society. Vol. 26 No. 4 (Oct-Dec 2009) pp. 38-54.
- White, Jonathan W. Civil War History. Vol. 1 No. 3 (2004) pp. 291-317.
Originally published by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.