Conversation Topics: Absentee Voting
After the 2000 US presidential election, in which the margin of victory was a relative "mere handful" of votes, the entire US presidential voting process has been undergoing considerable scrutiny. One piece of the process that is being looked at especially closely is the process used by those who are unable to make it to their designated voting location on election day. This is called "absentee voting." In the 2000 election, absentee votes could have easily put a different man in the White House.

Perhaps the best way to begin this discussion is to say that no one, whether lined up at the polling place or not, has any Constitutional right to vote for president. That's right, despite the televised outcries of some that when ballots were tossed out for various reasons (multiple punches, no punches, partial punches, etc.) that some people had lost their Constitutional right to vote ("disenfranchised" was the popular term), the average citizen at large has no Constitutional right to vote for president. The US Constitution, the rule book for the US, makes excellent reading (it's like the owner's manual for the country, and true to form, most of us only read the instructions when we think something isn't working right). It provides for the Electoral College ('ah, yes,' you say) to elect the president. How the Electoral College (that relative "mere handful") is chosen is up to each state. The fact that you even have a say in voting for delegates to the Electoral College is also out of the hands of the US federal government.

But we digress. The fact remains that throughout the country, the states have individually given their residents the right to cast a ballot in favor of a candidate, so long as they show up at the right polling place, on the right day, between the hours that the polling booths are open.

What happens if you are unable to make it to the polling booth? That problem was first addressed during the Civil War, some three-quarters of a century after we began electing a president. Some of the states in the Union made provisions for eligible voters (men) who were away from home in military service to vote. Of the two million or so in the military (it is unclear how many of those were actually from a state that allowed absentee voting) only about 150,000 voted, and of those, about 110,000 voted for their commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln. And although we've all learned in the past year that it's not the number of votes that is important but the number of Electoral College delegates that a candidate gets, it's interesting to note that the military vote amounted to only about one third of one percent of all votes cast.

While military men were the subject of the first absentee voting laws, during the Spanish-American War and World War I, overseas soldiers could not vote because of restrictions imposed by the US War Department. Things were a little better again in 1942, when some 28,000 in the military voted in that year's congressional election, traditionally a time of lower voter turnout. The issue of military votes become hotter the next year in the face of predictions of an upcoming, close presidential race between President Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey. With over nine million military personnel actively involved in World War II, their votes could easily change an election in which ultimately 47 million voters voted. There was much wrangling in Congress as each party tried to ensure that the absentee military voting process would favor their candidate, with an additional complication that some states (particularly in the south) had more restrictive voting requirements and did not want to see some citizens get the right to vote simply by being in the military. In the end, a compromise was struck, a special law passed, votes were cast and counted, but the result had very little impact on the election since the military votes were in similar proportion to the rest of the votes cast.

The civilian citizen had an even longer wait. It wasn't until 1896, more than 30 years after the first Union soldier cast his absentee vote, that others who were unable to get to the poll got the right to vote. Even in that year, you had to have lived in Vermont; if not, you still had to show up at the polling place to vote. It took until 1942 for most of the rest of the nation to catch up (and even then, Delaware, Kentucky, and New Mexico still did not allow absentee voting). And as we learned during the scrutiny of the 2000 presidential election, since there is not a Constitutionally (or federally) mandated process for absentee voting, there still is a wide variety of locally-mandated requirements before an otherwise eligible voter can cast an absentee ballot.

Should there be a common, country-wide absentee voting process? The framers (and amenders) of the Constitution did not think so. Absentee voting is a states' issue because the selection of Electoral College voters is a states' issue. But in 2000, as it was feared would happen in the 1944 election, a relative "mere handful" of ballots cast under widely ranging requirements determined the outcome for the whole country. Americans, especially American politicians who count on getting elected, are now giving the subject a little further thought.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica and World Almanac

Updated September 30, 2003 - go to our home or life advice page