In 1863, Gov. Leland Stanford, an ally of President Lincoln, signed a law giving soldiers stationed in battlefields the right to vote remotely in California’s elections. Like virtually every expansion of the franchise before or since, the new law was immediately the subject of partisan bickering, litigation and racist invective.
California Democrats who believed — accurately, it would turn out — that soldiers would favor their Republican commander in chief in the upcoming presidential election labeled the bill an act of partisan war. An article in the pro-Confederate Los Angeles Star warned that officers would order soldiers to vote for Lincoln, taking the county one more step “towards military despotism.” And the state Supreme Court ruled against the expansion, saying if the Legislature could authorize battlefield voting, what would stop them from acting as if “all colors should be considered, taken and held to be white”?
It wasn’t until 1922 that voters narrowly approved Proposition 22, giving the Legislature the right to legalize absentee voting, which it did the following year. But mail-in voters needed a good excuse: “occupation requiring travel or federal or state military or naval service.”
That list of permissible excuses grew until 1978, when California became the first state to allow any registered voter to vote remotely — no excuse required. Since then, the popularity of mail voting has swelled.