In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was facing re-election in the midst of the Civil War. And he was running against his former Union Army general, George B. McClellan.
The two men had different views on how to end the present war — Lincoln wanted to see it through and defeat the Confederacy, whereas McClellan wanted to negotiate peace.
It was leading up to this critical election that Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, decided to create an absentee, mail-in voting system. Both Stanton and Lincoln thought “that a democratic society fighting for its life should include all the legal voters who wished to vote. He instituted a system that was ultimately left up to the states to regulate but allowed soldiers deployed to the front lines to vote in their local, state, and federal elections.”
Ultimately, “25 states would change their laws to allow soldiers to vote while away, either at a field station in their military encampment or by mail.”
This new system won Lincoln 78% of the military’s vote — and the election.
But the new system wasn’t faultless. As historian Jonathan W. White wrote for the New York Times in 2014, some army officers approved leave for Republican soldiers to go back home and vote, but they denied Democrat soldiers the same treatment. Some soldiers who criticized Lincoln or the Emancipation Proclamation were court-martialed.
But on the whole, widespread voter fraud among the Civil War soldiers just didn’t happen. The worst instance of voter fraud with mail-in ballots was actually organized by a group of civilian McClellan supporters. Dustin Waters of the Washington Post writes how Orville Wood, a merchant and a Republican, was “tasked with determining how troops from his hometown were faring with mail-in voting.” Wood went undercover as a McClellan supporter and worked with the conspirators to create fraudulent ballots with forged signatures of “active enlisted men, wounded and dead soldiers, and officers who never existed.” These forged mail-in ballots were then crated to be shipped to New York, where they would be counted. Wood reported the plot, and the conspirators were arrested and tried “less than two weeks before Election Day.”
Click here to read the whole history on The Washington Post.