The Soldier Vote: A Memorial Day Tribute

The Soldier Vote

When You Lay It On The Line
Voting Doesn’t Come Easy

Michael Collins
“Scoop” Independent News
Washington, DC

Those Who Defend the Vote Deserve the Vote: The American Revolution

Soldiers of the American Revolutionary Army forcefully argued that they had the right to vote. Restrictions to voting based on property and other criteria were common in colonial America to assure the right type of voters. Washington’s troops were acutely aware of the injustice of their sacrifices for a freedom that they lacked.

Several states responded to these demands by expanding the franchise. For example, Pennsylvania’s radical constitution abolished property ownership as a requirement for voting. Male voting rights were based only on one requirement: to vote you needed to be a tax payer.

The Revolutionary Army’s demand for voting rights was a strong influence that spread democratic ideals. While the wealthy in other states were troubled by Pennsylvania’s consistent application of revolutionary ideals, those states were ultimately influenced by the general trend toward democracy generated by the war time contributions of citizens from all economic classes.

During the war, many patriot militiamen claimed the right to elect their officers; subsequently, many veterans, whether or not they had property, demanded the franchise. And when they voted, they chose different sorts of leaders. Before the war, about 85 percent of the assembly were wealthy men; by 1784, however, middling farmers and artisans controlled the lower houses of most northern states and formed a sizable minority in the southern states. Oxford University Press

What began during the birth of a new nation was expanded as a result of the Civil War.

Revolutionary Army Demands Bear Fruit for the Union: Reelecting Lincoln

The Civil War was coming to an end in 1864 and President Lincoln was worried. Grant and Sherman and his other commanders were about to deliver a resounding victory but it was an election year. Lincoln faced Democratic challenger, General George B. McClellan. At the start of the war, the president had fired the general as commander of the Union army. Little mac displayed a hesitance and unwillingness to fight that had hurt the Union cause and troubled Lincoln. Now the president worried about losing the 1864 election. He was convinced that McClellan would capitulate to the secessionist movement thus ending the Union at the moment of victory.

On the basis of principle and political instinct, Lincoln put his faith in the Union soldiers. He sought to expedite the vote. In this letter to one of his best generals, Lincoln made a suggestion for soldiers from states without absentee ballots.

To: General W. T. Sherman.

The State election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October, and the loss of it … would go far toward losing the whole Union cause. The bad effect upon the November election, and especially … giving the State government to those who will oppose the war in every possible way, are too much to risk if it can be avoided. … Anything you can safely do to let her soldiers or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election will be greatly in point. They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once. This is in no sense an order, but is merely intended to impress you with the importance to the Army itself of your doing all you safely can, yourself being the judge of what you can safely do.

Yours truly, A. Lincoln.

Sherman cooperated gladly.

Lincoln won the election with 77% of the Union soldiers giving him their vote. In most states, the soldier vote added to his margin. Of greater importance, their votes provided the margin to win critical House seats retaining the Republicans majority in congress. But in one state with a commitment to the broadest possible franchise, the soldiers made the difference for Lincoln. The Pennsylvania soldier vote exceeded Lincoln’s margin of victory and saved that critical state for those loyal to the Union cause.

Pennsylvania Soldiers Voting in Civil War

Pennsylvania’s Civil War soldiers are seen in this Harpers Weekly story from 10 October 1864. Pennsylvania was one of the few states that made voting easier for its soldiers at war. The state lowered the voting age form 21 to 18 and removed many common voting restrictions of that era. Lincoln won the state’s popular vote by 19 thousand votes. The soldier vote in just the Army of the Potomac contributed 14 of the 19 thousand vote victory margin.

The attention to soldier voting faltered after the Civil war.

Modern War and Limitations on Soldier Voting

The 1942 midterm elections focused attention on the rights of soldiers to vote. 140 thousand soldiers requested absentee ballots from their home states. Due to systemic inefficiencies, only 30 thousand of those could be returned and counted. This represented a single digit turnout rate for the 11 million soldiers overseas. The variable and cumbersome absentee ballot requirements of the 48 states, the desire of some to extend race based restrictions on registration to military personnel, and logistical problems all contributed to the low voting rate.

This low request and return rate was an outrage to many soldiers and a point of concern for the president. Roosevelt faced major opposition in 1944. There were millions of votes overseas blocked by a terribly inefficient and rigged system.

In order to expand the vote, the bipartisan War Ballot Commission was created. The commission listened to sentiments like this one quoted by Stars and Stripes:

Give us a chance to vote the easy way and not leave us to the individual States with their inadequate laws and delaying difficulties.

The War Ballot Commissioners came arrived at the simplest solution ever.

In order to vote soldiers would only have to fill out the ballot and it would be returned to the appropriate secretary of state to be counted.

This approach would have guaranteed millions of new voters. It came under sharp attack by an alliance of Southern Democrats who feared a breakthrough enfranchisement of black soldiers and Northern conservative Republicans lead by Sen. Robert Taft (R-OH). The alliance killed the elegant solution, one that might have revolutionized voting in the United States from that point on due to the reliance on common to expand voting opportunities.

The North-South conservative alliance managed to stop the best aspect of the program but states were put on notice that failing to meet the overseas requests for absentee ballots would result in the delivery of federal ballots that would count in state elections

1944: Roosevelt versus Dewey and the Explosion of Soldier Voting

New York’s Republican Governor Thomas Dewey challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was seeking his fourth term. The requests for military ballots exploded. State resistance, particularly Southern state resistance to black voters, combined with the Taft Republican stance were not enough to stop the tide of requests and votes. Figures vary but between 2.5 million and 4.5 million ballots were cast. Only 85 thousand federal ballots were used, with the remainder from the states. Once again, Pennsylvania played a prominent role in wartime voting. The 620 thousand ballots requested from the state lead the nation.

Roosevelt won by 3.5 million votes. The soldier votes accounted for part of that margin and played a role in lesser federal elections that year. The 1944 effort on behalf of soldier voting also stood out as one of the first federal efforts since Reconstruction aimed at assuring voting rights for black Americans. The War Ballot Commission started it all: if you’re fighting for your country, you have the right to vote, period.

Lt. Weathers, Army Air Force

Army Air Force Lt. Weathers, a war hero, was part of the only bomber escort group in World War II that never lost a bomber, the all black 332nd Fighter Group. Who would challenge his right to vote?

The More Things Change, the Harder it is for Soldiers to Vote

We live in an era of vastly superior technology. Information moves faster, more precisely, and continuously. Transpiration times have been greatly reduced. Yet American soldiers throughout the world lack the assurance that they will be given the fullest opportunities to vote. Richard Wolf of USAToday noted recently:

Six years after problems counting overseas votes clouded the 2000 presidential election, U.S. troops and other Americans abroad face tight timetables and emerging technologies that still make it difficult to have their votes counted. USAToday 09/26/2006

The issues are well known. They’ve come up in Korea and Viet Nam. There are 50 sets of state regulations dealing with absentee ballots and overseas Americans. Even if there is every good intention to facilitate the vote, soldiers in combat and support roles can’t worry about needless details or the politically motivated regulations.

The solution was presented over 60 years ago. The elegance and simplicity are unassailable:

soldiers would only have to fill out the ballot and it would be returned to the appropriate secretary of state to be counted.

Giving aid to a soldier in Afghanistan
Photograph: Daniel Love/US Army via pingnews.
Treating Shrapnel Wounds,
Helmand Province, Afghanistan, April 10, 2007

When we ask soldiers to go to places like Helmand Province, Afghanistan to risk their lives, we have an obligation of the highest order: make sure that they’re able to take part in the democratic process that ultimately determines their role and fate in the U.S. military.

Fixing the military vote by invoking the simple concept suggested by the War Ballot Commission in 1943 would be a fitting Memorial Day appreciation for the service and sacrifice offered: when a soldier shows up to vote, give him or her a ballot, then send it off to the soldier’s state with orders to count it in the appropriate election.


*The Soldier Vote is a headline from Time Magazine, 23 October 1944.

Permission to reprint is granted given a link to this article in “Scoop” Independent News and attribution of authorship.


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