Election Fraud – Real and Imagined – in Lincoln’s Day

Lest you think that concerns about election fraud – whether founded or unfounded – are a peculiarity of our own times, I invite you to read what Abraham Lincoln had to say on the subject!

Groundless Accusations?

In the fall of 1840, at the beginning of Lincoln’s fourth and final term as a Whig representative in the Illinois General Assembly (the state legislature), Democratic governor Thomas Carlin made accusations of fraud in the recent elections.  In response, Lincoln introduced a resolution requesting that the committee on elections come up with a bill to “afford the greatest possible protection of the elective franchise, against all frauds of all sorts whatever”.

There ensued a friendly but serious interchange between Lincoln and his friend John A. McClernand, a Democratic representative and future Civil War general.  Although Lincoln was very willing that an investigation of the election take place, he didn’t think that it would amount to much.  As a newspaper reported, “he had every reason to believe that all this hue and cry about frauds, was entirely groundless, and raised for other than honest purposes”.  Among other things, McClernand asserted that a steamboat had gone up and down the Wabash River collecting a large number of votes at various towns.  Lincoln replied that “he was near the Wabash at the time and place mentioned by the gentleman, and after making diligent inquiry for a Steam Boat, could hear of none”.

Secrecy vs. Transparency

The fact is, there was probably less potential for fraud in Lincoln’s day – at least until the Civil War – than in ours.  Many of the concerns about fraud in our day stem from our attempts to ensure secrecy in voting, which tends to diminish transparency.  In Lincoln’s day, secrecy took a back seat to transparency.

In short, there was nothing secret about voting back then.  You approached the bar in the election room and told the election judges and clerks the names of the persons you wished to vote for, and the clerks wrote down your name and selections.  This made it very easy for election observers to make their own tabulations and to keep track of who had already voted.  There was little chance of a dead person successfully voting back then!

In presidential elections, a voter also turned in a ballot listing the presidential electors for their preferred candidate.  Since they signed the back of the ballot (again: no secrecy), this made it easy to amend the results if it was later determined that a voter was not eligible to vote.

The downside to this lack of secrecy, of course, is that there was a greater likelihood for community pressure, intimidation, or bribery to enter into a voter’s decisions, and these were real and very serious problems.  Since campaigning was permitted at the polling place, voters could be bombarded with all sorts of promises and requests right up to the moment of voting.  Of course, one might make the case that a promise in our day for a $2,000 check if their candidates win isn’t far removed from bribery (just sayin’).

Protecting the Immigrant Vote

During Lincoln’s famous campaign against Stephen Douglas for U.S. Senator from Illinois in 1858, he was alarmed by a colleague’s claim that some of the German-Americans living in Madison County, across from St. Louis, had been unfairly disenfranchised in past elections.  Many were recently arrived and probably not familiar with America’s political process.  Lincoln wrote to his friend and political colleague Gustave Koerner to request that he and other influential German-Americans in that region see to it “that, at the election, none are cheated in their ballots”.

The Advent of In-Absentia Voting …

The Civil War presented a huge problem for the nation’s election system.  With hundreds of thousands of men serving in the military far from home, how could they vote?  At the time, only one state – Pennsylvania – permitted any kind of in-absentia voting.

For the 1862 mid-term elections, Lincoln encouraged states to amend their laws, but very few did (Missouri, a border state, was one which did; interestingly, six Confederate states did permit in-absentia voting by this time).  Two years later, however, with the 1864 state and national elections approaching, many of the northern states did finally provide means for soldiers to vote from the field.  Methods included designating a proxy to vote in their stead at home; voting at improvised polling places at military camps and hospitals; and mailing in their ballots.

Some of the northern states under Democratic control, however – such as Indiana – chose not to make such allowances, knowing full well that they would benefit Lincoln and other Republicans more than their own candidates.  This meant that many tens of thousands of Union soldiers would be disenfranchised unless they could return home to vote.  The Lincoln administration encouraged Union generals to furlough such soldiers for the necessary period of time if they could do so without jeopardizing the war effort.  Still, the end result was that many soldiers who were literally risking their lives for their country were indeed disenfranchised in the state and/or national elections in 1864.

… and the Resultant Advent of Voter Fraud?

Not surprisingly, it was the Democrats who protested against all this voting in absentia, claiming that it would lead to widespread fraud.  New York’s Governor Horatio Seymour, for example, said that if proxy votes were the deciding factor in the election, there would be “a well founded doubt as to the person rightfully entitled to the Presidential office”.  Democrats also thought, with good reason, that soldiers would feel pressure to vote Republican even if they were Democrats at heart.

It turns out, however, that the most celebrated instance of voter fraud in the 1864 election was perpetrated not by Republicans but by Democrats, and it involved some of the agents appointed by that same Governor Seymour to oversee the in-absentia vote of the New York soldiers.

Two of the Democratic agents, Edward Donahoe and Moses Ferry, were arrested in Baltimore by an Army Provost Marshal and charged with forging the ballots of New York soldiers.  They had apparently sent several boxes full of forged ballots supporting Democratic candidates to New York.  Ferry ratted on Donohoe, who eventually confessed to having signed an imaginary officer’s name on the ballots, but he made the case that no crime was committed because there was no officer by that name in the military service.  The military commission, chaired by General Abner Doubleday (of baseball fame), ruled otherwise and both men were convicted of forgery shortly before the national election.  They were sentenced to prison, in Donohoe’s case for life, and although Lincoln himself inquired about his case in February 1865, he apparently didn’t intervene before his own untimely death in April.  Three years later, however, Donohoe’s sentence would be remitted.

Vote Early, Vote Often?

Lincoln’s own concern for the potential of voter fraud in the 1864 elections is evident in a humorous note he wrote on a letter which his Secretary of State William Seward had received.  The letter, from New York, included the following statement: “I am told by a gentleman to whose statements I attach Credit, that the opposition Policy for the Presidential Campaign will be to ‘abstain from voting’.”  Lincoln wrote in response: “More likely to abstain from stopping once they get at it, until they shall have voted several times each”.


Despite the actual and potential issues of fraud created by in-absentia voting, Lincoln was undoubtedly in favor of it.  Many of the soldiers who voted were only able to do so because of in-absentia voting.  Lincoln received close to 80% of the military vote, as compared to 55% overall, and this made the difference in New York and some other states, too.

We can surmise that Lincoln would support any measure which would enable greater participation by eligible voters without creating an undue risk of widespread fraud.  At the same time, he would likely support the adoption of strong election laws to counteract fraudulent voting on the one hand, and voter suppression on the other, as well as supporting the vigorous enforcement of such laws.

Kevin J. Wood

January 6, 2021