The Civil War Beginnings of America’s Absentee Ballots

An 1864 illustration by William Waud of Union soldiers voting in Pennsylvania.
An 1864 illustration by William Waud of Union soldiers voting in Pennsylvania.
Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

For the first century or so of American independence, people stayed close to home and voted in person at the nearest polling station—much like we do today. As NBC News reports, there were a couple early exceptions to this tradition. In 1775, the town of Hollis, New Hampshire, permitted Continental Army soldiers to send representatives to vote in their stead at a local meeting; and Pennsylvania let soldiers send in their ballots during the War of 1812, though the practice was later declared unconstitutional.

But those scattered instances weren’t enough to make absentee voting a matter of national significance. During the Civil War, however, things changed. If all the Union soldiers stationed away from home couldn’t vote in the presidential election of 1864, it could potentially affect the outcome. Thinking that the majority of those soldiers would support Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln over Democrat George McClellan, the Republican Party began lobbying for laws allowing far-flung soldiers to cast their ballots from the battlefield.

In 1862, Wisconsin became the first state to pass such legislation, which let military leaders turn their camps into makeshift polling locations and mail soldiers’ ballots to state officials. According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, 19 states had followed suit by the general election of 1864. Some mandated that ballots be collected in camps and sent home en masse, while others, like Minnesota, allowed soldiers to mail in their absentee ballots individually.

Meanwhile, Democrats—worried the soldiers’ votes would hurt McClellan’s chances of winning—warned of voter fraud and tried to block efforts to legalize absentee ballots.

“The soldiers are not asking or demanding any such privilege or right,” wrote F.O. Thorpe, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, “and in our opinion it is simply a scheme of leading partisans in the dominant party … to gain some great advantage to their party in the future.”

While Wisconsin’s mostly Republican legislature was able to quash Thorpe’s dissent, state legislatures with Democratic majorities, like Illinois’s and Indiana’s, didn’t pass laws allowing soldiers to vote in absentia.

Overall, about 150,000 out of 1 million soldiers (in the Union only; the Confederacy held its own election) were able to vote by mail. Since Lincoln won the popular vote by more than 408,000 votes—and the electoral vote with 212 over McClellan’s paltry 21—it’s unlikely those absentee ballots actually swung the election in his favor, but they did set the precedent for expanded absentee voting laws for wars (and pandemics) in years to come.

[h/t NBC News]

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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The Queen’s Guard May Have to Give Up Their Iconic Bearskin Hats

Can you tell that this is real bear fur?
Can you tell that this is real bear fur?
Defence Images, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) has given its leaders the chance to negotiate new trade deals and maybe even ban the sale of certain products—like fur. It’s something animal rights activists have long been pushing for, and a recently publicized letter from UK environment secretary George Eustice suggests that the government will indeed investigate the possibility.

As The Independent reports, Eustice wrote to the chief executive of the British Fur Trade Association that “once the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU has been established, there will be an opportunity to consider further steps it could take in relation to fur sales.” It’s far from a definitive proclamation, but since Eustice has seemed open to banning fur in the past, the letter has been taken as a positive sign for the anti-fur movement.

If the UK does eventually prohibit the sale of fur, this could mean the end of the authentic bearskin hats worn by the Queen’s Guard, who are most often seen stationed outside Buckingham Palace. According to Londonist, the 18-inch hats are created with fur from black bears killed during Canada’s annual black bear cull—a large-scale hunt that helps keep the population under control—and the UK Ministry of Defence purchases up to 100 new hats for the famously unflappable infantrymen each year.

The tradition of donning such eccentric headgear dates back to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Napoleon’s Imperial Guard wore similar hats to make them seem taller and more intimidating. After the French were defeated by the Duke of Wellington and his British army, Britain adopted the hats as a symbol of victory.

But even if the UK does prohibit fur in the future, the Queen’s Guard could still keep the custom going. After all, there are plenty of convincing kinds of fake fur on the market these days. And as for what Queen Elizabeth II might think about the shift, we’re guessing she’d condone it; she herself gave up wearing fur products in 2019.

[h/t The Independent]