A president, in the middle of a national crisis, was faced with a difficult re-election campaign. His policies were unpopular, the country had endured a lot of pain, and it seemed likely that he would lose in November. The president had a track record of bending the rules to deal with the emergencies he had faced. Some of his supporters suggested delaying the election, using the crisis as an excuse. The president, Abraham Lincoln, refused. After the election, which he won after some unexpected Union military victories in the Fall, he said:
It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence in great emergencies.
On this point the present rebellion brought our republic to a severe test; and a presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion added not a little to the strain. If the loyal people, united, were put to the utmost of their strength by the rebellion, must they not fail when divided, and partially paralized (sic), by a political war among themselves?
But the election was a necessity.
We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.
The Union found a way to hold a free and fair election in 1864; it did so again during a pandemic and world war in 1918, and again during total war in 1942 and 1944. Americans found ways to make sure that every vote was cast and counted. Voting during the coronavirus pandemic will be complicated, but the United States in 2020 is blessed with far better communications and record-keeping abilities than we were during these other elections. A failure to hold a fair election — or a delay of the election, as the President recently suggested — will be due to our own shortcomings as a society, not the pandemic facing us.
The election of 1864 was a logistical nightmare. Voters were scattered all over the country by the war, and federal and state governments had only rudimentary processes to keep track of where soldiers were or whether they were still alive. Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan, was the commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac. By making it easier for soldiers to vote, Lincoln risked losing the election, as McClellan was widely expected to be the soldiers’ choice. Nevertheless, he resolved to make sure American democracy worked — after all, that was what the Civil War was about in his mind. The war was going badly for Lincoln deep into the summer — on August 23, he wrote to his cabinet: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”
As it has this year, access to voting became a partisan issue. The Republican Party wanted to expand opportunities for soldiers to vote, despite the fact that it was expected to hurt Lincoln; many Democrats charged that this opened up the potential for fraud. Most states changed their voting rules for the Civil War to allow remote or absentee voting. Some states, like Pennsylvania, sent representatives to military units (which were usually made up of people from the same state) to set up remote voting stations. Most states, however, allowed their soldiers to vote by mail. By all accounts, the voting went rather well; over 150,000 soldiers voted in the election, and there seems to have been no major voter fraud.
In 1918, the American voting system faced a stiffer test. The midterm elections took place at the peak of a flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people worldwide; meanwhile, many voters were overseas fighting the First World War. The pandemic made it impossible for candidates to campaign normally, as much of American society was shut down in October and November, 1918. Some candidates chafed against public health rules just as Donald Trump has, accusing their opponents of using the pandemic as an excuse to disallow rallies and speeches. New York Democrats, for example, argued that there was a “Republican quarantine against Democratic campaign speeches.” Some politicians tried to outwit health officials, holding gatherings in churches (which were still open in some places) or outdoors. In most locations, however, politicians did not complain about being barred from speaking or holding gatherings; they simply did the responsible thing and found other ways to get their message out.
Local authorities had different approaches to facilitating the pandemic election. In the eastern U.S., where the wave of influenza had already crested, many polling places were open as usual. In other parts of the country — where the pandemic was at its worst just as election day hit — there was some talk of postponement. In North Dakota and Wisconsin, for example, state officials mused about moving election day. This led to confusion and rumors among the population, leading election officials to enlist newspapers to remind citizens that elections would be held as usual. Only a few remote parts of the country failed to cast their ballots on November 5 —the town of Ingot, California was one of them, postponing the vote for the simple reason that there weren’t enough healthy people in the town to staff the polls. Most polling places, however, went forward with voting, implementing social distancing rules and facemask mandates. Overall, the pandemic probably suppressed turnout by 5–10%, but the election went relatively smoothly nationwide.
Disease wasn’t the only obstacle to a smooth election in 1918; over two million Americans were serving overseas. The system for allowing soldiers to vote was a patchwork. Soldiers were no longer organized into units by their state of origin, which made it more difficult to keep track of their ballots. Some states made a real effort to allow soldiers to vote, implementing absentee-voter laws, but most states didn’t do much. This changed by the time the 1942 and 1944 elections took place during World War II. For the millions of soldiers overseas, federal and state governments worked to make voting possible. Federal laws were passed in both 1942 and 1944 to make voting by mail easy for soldiers. In 1944, for example, soldiers were expected to apply for a ballot from their home state by September 1. If their state couldn’t get one to them by October 1, the soldiers were issued an abbreviated federal ballot with the candidates for Congress and President. In both of these wartime elections, the federal government promoted voting as an essential function of democracy — the very cause for which the soldiers were said to be fighting. There was little talk of fraud, and the elections went smoothly.
The 2020 election will be held in a country with far superior technological and logistical know-how than 1864, 1918, or 1944. If people in those years could pull off a successful election, we certainly can, too. But it will take a concerted effort to make the election work, and both major political parties will have to approach the election effort in good faith. The biggest threat to our election’s integrity is not the pandemic; it’s the cynical efforts of a party determined to undermine an election it is likely to lose.