Prior to the revolution, voting in the American Colonies was a public matter. Voters would gather and each one in turn would call out their choice for office, which would then be recorded and tallied. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, around the creation of absentee voting, that votes would be cast on slips of paper. The type of voting that we know today, with private polling rooms and hidden ballots, originated in Australia and was called the Australian Ballot. It was adopted in the colony of Victoria in Australia in 1856, later in England in 1872, and finally in the United States in 1888, with Kentucky being the first state to adopt the practice.
In 1813, during the war of 1812, Pennsylvania passed legislation that allowed members of the military to vote by mail if they were stationed more than two miles from their home. This legislation was amended in 1838 to require voters to reside in the district where they intend to vote ten days prior to Election Day. The original 1813 language was reenacted in 1839. In 1815, New Jersey passed a similar law for members of the military, which was later repealed in 1820.
By the end of 1861 during the Civil War, six of eleven Confederate states had granted absentee voting rights for members of the military. In June of 1862, Missouri became the first Union state to grant the same rights. By the 1864 presidential election between George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln, seven of the Confederate States and nineteen of the Union States allowed their military to cast absentee ballots.
Ballots could be cast by proxy, wherein the soldier would designate a proxy to cast his vote in his home district or precinct. Soldiers also had the opportunity to cast a direct vote, wherein a polling site would be set up by officers, overseen by appointed clerks or state officials, and the soldiers could deposit their ballots in a voting box, which would then be sent back to their home precinct.
After the Civil War, states began gradually expanding absentee voting rights to civilians.
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