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On Election Day: What would Lincoln do?

Here’s an anecdote about Abe Lincoln on Election Day, 1860, which carries with it the charm of simpler times.

Abraham Lincoln
Library of CongressAbraham Lincoln

I can’t think of anything useful or helpful to say on Election Day other than to encourage everyone to vote for the candidates of your choice. (When I was a kid in Massachusetts, the joke was “vote for the Kennedy of your choice.”)

So I’m recycling an anecdote I used a few years ago about Abe Lincoln on Election Day, 1860, which carries with it the charm of simpler times and the poignancy of so much Lincolniana.

The ballot system in Illinois in 1860 (and in widespread use around the country) was this: On his way in to vote, a voter would pick up a pre-printed partisan ballot. On the ballot, your party would have thoughtfully printed the name of all of its candidates. You didn’t have to fill it out at all, just take it from the party worker and deposit it into the ballot box. (Not much privacy in this voting system. The party ballots were often given distinctive coloration, so while you were in line to vote, everyone could see which party’s ballot you were holding.)

You could, if you wanted, modify the ballot, striking out the names of those for whom you didn’t want to vote and writing in others, but most folks just voted the party line. (Nowadays, I guess we call that hyperpartisanship.)

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Lincoln, the Republican nominee for president that year, had a particular problem with his own vote. Presidential candidates were expected to do nothing to advance their own election, waiting modestly to be called by the nation to serve. In keeping with this tradition, Lincoln had remained behind the scenes during the entire campaign, giving no speeches nor making any appearances that we would consider campaigning. (I can’t say this strikes me as a good thing. But at the end of the longest, noisiest presidential campaign ever, having heard pretty much every word that either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama knows, it does have a certain charm.)

According to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, several of Lincoln’s friends were convinced that, out of respect for that tradition, Lincoln would not vote at all, since the Republican ballot contained the names of the Republican electors who were pledged to vote for Lincoln for president.

But Lincoln wanted to support the rest of the party ticket. So he showed up at the polling place in Springfield (to great hurrahs from his friends), took the Republican ballot (I don’t guess we can call it the Grand Old Party ballot since the GOP had just come into existence in the 1850s), and, in sight of all, tore off the top of the ballot that included his name and the names of the electors pledged to him. Then he “voted” by putting the torn ballot into the box.

How it turned out

Lincoln would carry Illinois over his long-time political rival, Stephen Douglas, who had defeated Lincoln in the famous 1858 Senate race that featured the great debates. Douglas was the nominee of the northern branch of the Democratic Party, which had split in two, a bad sign of the breakup of the nation that soon followed.

Lincoln received just 39.9 percent of the popular vote. But because it was a four-way race and because Lincoln pretty much swept the northern states, he won a solid Electoral College majority with 180 electoral votes to 72 for runner-up John C. Breckenridge, the nominee of the southern Democrats. Douglas finished second in the popular vote but a very distant fourth place in the Electoral College, carrying only Missouri and part of New Jersey for a lousy 12 electoral votes. The North had become solid Republican territory and made Lincoln the first Republican president, although before long, he would find himself president of only the North and a few border states.

This was the first presidential election for the new state of Minnesota (elevated to statehood in 1858). It was a Republican state and would never give its electoral votes to a Democrat until Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, Lincoln carried our state with 63.4 percent of the vote, his second strongest state.

Lincoln carried 18 of the then-33 states. And if you look at those 18 “red” states, they now constitute, almost precisely, the base of the Democratic tickets over recent elections. In 2008, Obama carried all 18 of them, and is favored in 17 of them today. On the other hand, Republican Mitt Romney is favored in almost all of the states that voted against Republican Abe Lincoln. The two parties have traded bases.