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Could the Election Turn on the Votes of the Soldiers in the Field?

When Al Gore failed to carry his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 presidential election and returns from Florida became "too close to call," the race ultimately came down to a determination of "voter intent" divined by examination of Florida's punch card ballots and a count of its military absentee votes. Some 1,420 absentee ballots were thrown out after a Democratic consultant circulated a memo which suggested using technicalities to disallow the votes of military personnel, but the 2,206 that were accepted provided the slim winning margin of just 537 votes for George W. Bush.

Four years later, more than 160,000 military personnel are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with another 266,000 (accompanied by 123,000 spouses) stationed principally in Europe and the Far East. And while the federal Election Commission finds that general voter participation hovers around 50 percent in presidential elections, participation by the military is almost 70 percent. A survey of military members and their families also shows a 73 percent to 18 percent preference for Bush over Kerry. Thus, it is no surprise that military absentee ballots -- this time cast in the midst of war by a strongly pro-Bush military -- are again shaping up to be a deciding factor in not one, but several state counts.

This is not a new phenomenon but one has to reach back three dozen election cycles, to 1864, to find a presidential campaign where military votes were so crucial during a wartime election. Union soldiers numbering in the hundreds of thousands were fighting and dying far from their homes, and state governments began looking into the possibility of allowing these citizens to cast votes from the front lines. Originally the Party of Lincoln was none too thrilled at the prospect. In January 1863, the Republican Congressional caucus decided not to lend any support to soldier enfranchisement largely because all of the senior Union generals, including Abraham Lincoln's likely opponent, George B. McClellan, were Democrats.

The emergence of a new -- and somewhat more successful -- crop of Republican commanders such as George Meade, William Tecumseh Sherman, and future president Ulysses S. Grant allayed such fears in Washington and Northern state houses. Republicans proclaimed the cause their own and the Speaker of the New Hampshire House even accused Democrats of "selfish opposition" to soldiers' voting rights. Fully eleven of the twenty-five states then represented in Congress were able to provide for participation of the troops in time for the presidential election.

The results were a bitter disappointment for McClellan. Although the dashing young general was immensely popular with the troops, particularly those in the Army of the Potomac outside Washington, the men's ballots went for Lincoln in resounding majorities. Historian Bruce Catton found that McClellan was still "almost worshiped" by soldiers who believed that there had been a better, stronger army when he commanded in 1862. Yet, said Catton, these same men all agreed that if the war horse Grant had been in command then, the fighting would already have been over. McClellan even lost his current and former home states of Pennsylvania and Ohio on the strength of the soldier vote.

Scholars differ, however, on the actual impact of the new absentee ballots and participation by soldiers home on furlough. Allan Nevins maintained that although the military vote for Lincoln ranged as high as ten-to-one in some districts, "in not a single State was it the decisive factor." Shelby Foote has disagreed, stating that although the president received a wide electoral margin, "the contest had been a good deal closer than these figures indicated," Said Foote: "Connecticut was carried by a mere 2,000 votes and New York by fewer than 7,000, both as a result of military ballots." Lincoln biographer Carl Sandberg related what was perhaps the most poignant story of the 1864 election; that within the foul, disease-infested rooms of Richmond, Virginia's Libby Prison for Union prisoners of war "the votes were 276 for Lincoln and 95 for McClellan." Of more than 4,000,000 votes cast, the president received 2,203,831 versus the general's 1,797,019. The military's tally was even more disproportionate as Lincoln took nearly 120,000 of 154,000 soldiers' votes.

What will historians a generation from now say about the effect of military absentee ballots on the election of 2004? Pundits, lawyers and political operatives will be happy to share their views but one can only wait and see. However, another event during the election of 1864 may shed some light on whether or not those votes may even count.

Lincoln received 212 of 233 electoral votes and both he and his opponent might have received even more. In a historical event never repeated, the votes of soldiers and civilians alike from Louisiana and Tennessee were not factored into the final count because the Senate deemed these states' elections invalid. In the election of 1864, the disavowal of two states electoral votes had scant effect on the outcome. If the votes of a "battleground state" -- its process tangled up in a web of lawsuits filed by an invading "army" of attorneys -- is unable to send its electors to Washington on December 13, a majority built on the strength of military absentee ballots may not be enough to bring victory to President Bush who might then lag in electoral votes behind John Kerry.

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    This article is adapted from the authors' earlier piece in the Washington Times.