Despite the Risks, Letting Americans Vote by Mail in November is Good for DemocracyRoundup
tags: democracy, public health, Voting, 2020 Election, COVID-19
Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University and author of "Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln," which will be released by LSU Press in paperback in the fall.
In the face of the highly contagious novel coronavirus making voting in person a risky, even deadly event, a heated partisan debate has emerged over voting by mail as an alternative for the November general election. Many Republicans charge that this form of voting will lead to fraud, while Democrats claim that those Republicans oppose voting by mail to suppress voter turnout. This debate is part of an ongoing battle over whether to make voting easier, turbocharged by a pandemic.
But November’s presidential election actually isn’t the first to raise questions about how Americans might vote without coming to the polls. The debate today mirrors the heated partisan rhetoric of the 1860s. Never before had so many voters been away from their homes during elections, and the idea of permitting soldiers to use absentee ballots touched off a rancorous national debate. Then as now, it hinged on balancing concern about fraud with the right to vote. Ultimately, American democracy was greatly enriched by expanding access to the ballot and affirming that this right was at the core of U.S. citizenship.
At the beginning of the Civil War, only one state — Pennsylvania — permitted soldiers to vote in the field. In 1861, thousands of Pennsylvania soldiers voted for state and local offices from their military camps as far away as Virginia. Unfortunately, fraud permeated the elections. One regiment allegedly cast a 900-vote majority for a Republican candidate from Philadelphia even though the regiment had only 60 or 70 men from the city. “The frauds were very gross,” noted Philadelphia diarist Sidney George Fisher, and “all parties were guilty.”
Disgust with such fraud was bipartisan, and when the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for men to vote outside their districts, the decision was not controversial. The Philadelphia Press praised it, arguing that the “wisdom of the decision … will be acknowledged by every thinking person, and by none sooner or readier than by the patriotic officers and soldiers, whom it at first blush appears to deprive temporarily of the elective franchise.”
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