Voting by mail can trace its roots to soldiers voting far from home during the Civil War and World War II. By the late 1800s, some states were extending absentee ballots to civilian voters under certain conditions, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Oregon became the first state to move to an all-mail voting system. Here is everything you need to know about the history of absentee voting and vote by mail.
What Does the Constitution Say About Voting?
There is no step-by-step guide to voting in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 4 says that it’s up to each state to determine “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections.” This openness has enabled the voting process in the United States to evolve as the country’s needs have changed.
The Founding Fathers voted by raising their voices—literally. Until the early 19th century, all eligible voters cast their “Viva Voce” (voice vote) in public. While the number of people eligible to vote in that era was low and primarily composed of land-owning white males, turnout hovered around 85 percent, largely due to enticing voting parties held at polling stations.
The first paper ballots appeared in the early 19th century and were originally blank pieces of paper. By the mid-1800s, they had gone to the other extreme: political parties printed tickets with the names of every candidate pre-filled along party lines. It wasn’t until 1888 that New York and Massachusetts became the first states to adopt pre-printed ballots with the names of all candidates (a style called the “Australian ballot” after where it was created). By then, another revolution in voting had taken place: Absentee voting.
The Civil War and Absentee Ballots
The first widespread instance of absentee voting in the United States was during the Civil War. The logistics of a wartime election were daunting: “We cannot have free government without elections,” President Abraham Lincoln told a crowd outside the White House in 1864, “and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
“Lincoln was concerned about the outcome of the midterm elections,” says Bob Stein, Director of the Center for Civic Leadership at Rice University. “Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, pointed out that there were a lot of Union soldiers who couldn’t vote, so the president encouraged states to permit them to cast their ballots from the field.” (There was some precedent for Lincoln’s wish; Pennsylvania became the first state to offer absentee voting for soldiers during the War of 1812.)
WATCH: Lincoln on HISTORY Vault
In the 1864 presidential election between Lincoln and George McClellan, 19 Union states changed their laws to allow soldiers to vote absentee. Some states permitted soldiers to name a proxy to vote for them back home while others created polling sites in the camps themselves. Approximately 150,000 out of one million soldiers voted in the election, and Lincoln carried a whopping 78 percent of the military vote.
By the late 1800s, several states offered civilians the option of absentee voting, though they had to offer an accepted excuse, most commonly distance or illness. The passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 and 19th Amendment in 1920 expanded the number of eligible voters in the United States, but it would take another war to propel absentee voting back into the national spotlight.
Absentee Voting in World War II
Absentee voting re-entered the national conversation during World War II, when “both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman encouraged military voting,” says Stein. The Soldier Voting Act of 1942 permitted all members of the military overseas to send their ballots from abroad. Over 3.2 million absentee ballots were cast during the war. The act was amended in 1944 and expired at war’s end.
Legislation passed throughout the next few decades made voting easier for servicemen and women and their families: The Federal Voting Assistance Act of 1955; the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) in 1986; and the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment, or MOVE Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009.
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States Expand Vote by Mail
“Before the civil rights movement., it was largely members of the military, expats and people who were truly disabled or couldn’t get to their jurisdiction who were permitted to vote absentee,” says Stein. While most historians cite California as the first state to offer no-excuse absentee voting, Michael Hanmer, research director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, says it was actually Washington state that made the switch in 1974.
Other Western states soon followed: “Western states are newer, have the biggest rural areas, the most land and are doing the most pioneering work,” says Lonna Atkeson, Director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. “Their progressive values played a role in their political culture.”
Oregon became the first state to switch to vote by mail exclusively in 2000. Washington followed in 2011.
WATCH: America 101: Why Do We Vote on the First Tuesday?
2020 Election: Which States Offer Voting by Mail?
The 2020 presidential election takes place in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when concerns about virus transmission in crowds caused lawmakers to rethink rules around appearing in person to vote. For the first time in history, at least 75 percent of Americans are able to vote absentee.
In the 2020 election:
· Thirty-four U.S. states offer no-excuse absentee voting or permit registered voters to cite COVID-19 as their reason to vote absentee.
· Nine states and Washington, D.C. mail all ballots directly to voters: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Nevada, New Jersey, Utah, Vermont and Washington.
· Seven states—Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas—require voters to give a reason other than COVID-19 to vote absentee.
How to Vote by Mail
Ballots that go through the mail can be divided into two categories: Absentee ballots, typically requested by people who are unable to vote in person for physical reasons, and mail-in ballots, which are automatically provided to all eligible voters in states with all-mail voting systems.
The rules around voting by mail vary from state to state.
“When are ballots due? Postmarked? Federalism is a beautiful thing, but it’s complex because each state does something different,” says Atkeson. “In the end, access and security make for a well-run election and makes people feel that their vote is counted.”