The Battle for Uniform Votes: The Politics of Soldier Voting in the Elections of 1944

Article excerpt

IN 1944, FOR THE FIRST TIME since the Civil War, the United States faced a presidential election during a major war. The call to arms had once again swept large numbers of voters far from the districts and wards in which they were eligible to vote. In 1864, state legislatures had to devise the means for soldier voting from scratch. Eighty years later, the absentee ballot machinery was hardly more advanced. Existing state measures, claimed the sponsor of a soldier voting bill, could not meet the needs of personnel overseas when "a fellow down in Florida can hardly vote in Illinois."1

It was not only the process of absentee voting that was underdeveloped but also the political commitment to the citizen's right to vote and to the soldier's identity as a citizen. By no means had the Civil War experience settled the issue of whether a soldier's franchise was an immutable right or one of those personal freedoms suspended by military service. During World War II, both advocates and opponents of government-facilitated absentee voting claimed to be defending the rights and wishes of the American citizen-soldier. Yet the argument over soldier voting was so contentious that the New York Times called it "one of the most bitter debates" in recent American politics as well as "one of the strangest and most politically dangerous situations ... in modern political history."2

During the Civil War, Republicans in each state legislature tried to amend state laws to permit soldiers to vote on the grounds that an American did not surrender his citizenship by becoming a soldier. They argued that not enabling the soldiers to vote when they were fighting for the existence of the country amounted to the worst sort of betrayal. Democrats opposed soldier voting on the grounds that men in uniform could not render an independent political judgment. They would be herded along by their comrades and commanders to support their commander in chief, becoming a veritable "bayonet vote." As Republicans held majorities in most legislatures, they were able to enact short-lived laws to permit soldier voting. After the war, states took the trouble to strike down their soldier voting laws, and a few states even banned future voting by soldiers. In the end, there was little consensus over whether a soldier was or was not reduced to the status of a quasi citizen while in the service when it came to voting.3

Rather than establish guiding principles, the Civil War soldier voting experience previewed controversies that the nation faced anew in the next wartime presidential election in 1944. States had done little in the interim to facilitate out-of-state voting. Although continuing the war to victory was not an issue in dispute in the election, once again the opposition party wondered if the troops would somehow be influenced to vote for their commander in chief as if by default. Some Republicans suspected that the War Department was all too comfortable with the devil it knew. Like Abraham Lincoln before him, Franklin D. Roosevelt was considered a dictator by his fiercest critics, bent on concentrating power in his own hands. Furthermore, he was less vulnerable politically than Lincoln had been in 1864. Republicans did not repeat the blunder of the Civil War Democrats by alienating soldiers, but they displayed little enthusiasm for bringing the election to the front. Liberals who saw soldier voting as a vehicle to attack Jim Crow voting impediments (such as the poll tax then in use in eight Southern states) also spurred conservative Democrats to join Republicans in states' rights arguments against centralized planning for the soldier vote.

Representative Robert L. Ramsay (D-WV) sponsored a bill that would create a standard (i.e., federal) postcard application that soldiers could mail in to their home states to request a ballot. The standardized postcard would eliminate the time-wasting step of having to write in for a ballot application, only to receive it and send it right back to ask for a ballot. …