The election of 1862 was the first electoral contest in the history of the United States to raise widespread questions about the voting rights of soldiers and sailors. Before then, with a small regular Army and an even smaller Navy, few local government officials were concerned about absentee voting issues, it being expected that all citizens would simply vote in their local precincts. Many state constitutions restricted voting to locations within state boundaries. Such limitations effectively made voting by soldiers assigned to locations away from their home state illegal. Some state constitutions permitted voting from locations away from the home precinct if the voter was away on official state or federal business. Soldiers, however, were generally excluded from that provision.
The desire of the men and the communities they represented was that the soldiers should vote. It was, however, difficult to make happen. Most state constitutions restricted voting to a fixed place and were so legally tangled that sometimes an amendment was required to, “enable the Legislature to legislate at all upon the subject.” There were variances from state to state as well: in Vermont, April 1, 1864, the state supreme court finally declared it to be unconstitutional for there to be absentee voting in state elections, but entirely constitutional for soldiers and sailors to vote in Congressional and Presidential elections.
By the election of 1864, most states had taken steps to ensure that their soldiers in the field could vote. Some states permitted soldiers to vote by proxy, with vote choices sent home to an individual who would cast votes on the soldier’s behalf. Wisconsin was the first state to legalize absentee voting in 1862, and some states went so far as to send election commissioners to their state regiments in the field to monitor the proceedings. Indiana, Delaware, and New Jersey failed to pass bills amending their state constitutions, so no provisions at all were made to help troops from those states to vote in the election of 1864. Oregon never offered any sort of bill to their voters, completely disenfranchising any Oregonian in uniform, unless he happened to be home during the mandated polling times.
Depending on the will of the states, there were two types of voting. One was the relatively simple process of taking a ballot box to the troops in the field, then allowing individual soldiers to vote. The other was an even more complicated process–proxy voting. The soldier prepared his ballot in the field, then sent the ballot to a designated proxy, who cast the ballot in the soldier’s home voting precinct. Each of these methods had problems that needed to be worked out.
The first method was true “voting in the field.” The effect of casting a ballot was exactly the same as if it had been cast in the soldier’s legal polling place. State constitutional differences created problems regarding implementation procedures, but most states worked mightily to amend their constitutions and allow their soldiers and sailors the chance to exercise their right to vote. Military officers could not take the ballot box to the field, as states feared there might be undue pressures put upon the soldiers for one candidate or the other. Voting was a civil matter. States felt it must be conducted under the control of civil officers, who were not answerable to the military for the performance of their duties. This was an objection to the method of collecting and counting votes rather than the act of voting itself. Several states avoided this issue by passing Soldiers’ Voting Acts, which detailed the appointment of officers or soldiers to act as supervisors or constables, just as the laws of the state would be followed in elections at home.
Proxy voting was adopted in New York, Illinois, and a few counties in other states. Proxy voting avoided the problems of collecting votes in the field, but opened up other issues. The secrecy of the soldier’s vote could be compromised before it was cast in the home precinct, and the opportunity for fraud was great. This was a serious concern for New York soldiers in the field. The state of New York, always a political hotbed, was torn apart by the jockeying for power between Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour, and Republican New York Secretary of State Chauncey Depew. There was ample evidence of fraud in New York’s results, and in New York and Connecticut, the soldiers’ vote affected the outcome of the state elections. However, historian William Frank Zornow wrote, ” . . . even then Lincoln carried the popular vote and the electoral vote of the North. Several congressmen owed their seats to the army voters, but even had they not been chosen, the Union Party would still have controlled the Thirty-ninth Congress.”