This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.
In recent years, voting by mail has become increasingly common throughout the United States. But absentee voting, including voting by mail, is not a recent phenomenon. A study of historical primary sources can help students gain context and perspective regarding such voting practices throughout our nation’s history.
Introduce the topic of absentee voting by asking students to examine this October 1864 sketch showing Pennsylvania Civil War soldiers voting from the field. What interesting details do they notice from the sketch? How would they describe what is happening?
Explain that the Civil War was one of the first instances of wide-spread absentee voting in the United States. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, set up satellite polling stations in the field. Others allowed soldiers to mail in their ballots. As reported in the October 20, 1864 Alleghanian, this additional tally could be significant. “Although the returns come in slowly,” they wrote, “it is now conceded Pennsylvania has gone Union by five thousand majority, which will be increased to twenty thousand by the soldier’s vote.”
As students continue to examine the image, encourage them to reflect on why many Pennsylvania soldiers voted in this manner. Furthermore, what details do they notice in the sketch that might provide clues about the voting processes and procedures in place? How might these procedures have been similar or different compared to a vote by mail option?
The opportunity to vote by mail has also been made available to civilians, and Chronicling America contains numerous newspaper articles that document how such practices have been discussed and implemented. This article from the September 29, 1920 issue of the Evening Star describes how the National Women’s Party sought to educate female voters regarding their absentee voting options, just one month after they won the right to vote.
Once again, ask students to make observations and look for clues to explain why some citizens were allowed to vote by mail. They may note that in 1920 a number of women resided in Washington, D.C., yet had voting residences elsewhere. They may also note that not every state granted citizens the right to vote by mail, and that among those who did, rules varied from state to state, perhaps lending a sense of urgency to the National Women Party’s education campaign.
Chronicling America offers numerous additional newspaper articles on the topic. Try entering the phrase “Vote by Mail” or “Absentee Voting” in the search box as a starting point to see what is there. Interested students can even explore early 20th century newspaper editorials arguing for and against the practice of voting by mail, illustrating that such debates, as well, are not entirely new. Let us know what research paths your students take!