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Democracy

No, Abraham Lincoln was not 'barred from the ballot' in Southern states in 1860

The Colorado Supreme Court's ruling on Trump has triggered a wave of false claims about Lincoln's election. Here's what actually happened.

screenshot of tweet, Abraham Lincoln photo with "Let me google that for you" text box
Simon Abeta/X, Public Domain

People are claiming Lincoln was taken off the ballot in the slaveholding states, but that's not what happened.

In a ruling on December 19, 2023, the Colorado Supreme Court declared former president Donald Trump ineligible to be included on the state's primary ballot, citing the U.S. Constitution’s insurrection clause. The ruling prompted a wave of responses, some of which claim that Abraham Lincoln had been "barred from the ballot" or "taken off the ballot" by Democrats in 10 Southern slaveholding states in the 1860 election, which preceded the Civil War.

Unfortunately, thousands of people have "liked" and shared claims like this one:

It's unfortunate because it's false. While it's true that no ballots were distributed or cast for Lincoln in those states, it wasn't because he was barred, banned or taken off the ballot.

Here's why this claim is inaccurate:

First of all, there was no such thing as "the ballot" in 1860.


Generally speaking, a ballot today is an official piece of paper that lists candidates running for a public office and a place to mark which candidate you are voting for. We also say "the ballot" to refer to the list of candidates on that official piece of paper.

That's not at all what a ballot was in 1860. And there was no "theballot" the way we think of it today at all.

In Lincoln's time, a ballot was either 1) a blank paper on which you wrote in the name(s) of who you were voting for or 2) a preprinted piece of paper with the name(s) a specific candidate or candidates handed out by a specific party. There was no ballot that had a list of candidates to choose from like we have today. That kind of "blanket ballot" wasn't used in U.S. elections until after 1888, when it gradually became adopted.

Lincoln couldn't be barred or taken off a ballot when there was no list of candidates on a ballot to begin with.

Secondly, state authorities didn't issue printed ballots. Political parties did.

old piece of paper labeled Republican ticket with a list of names

A Republican party ticket (i.e., ballot) from Ohio, 1860

Library of Congress

Today, ballots are non-partisan documents issued by state or local governments. That was not the case in 1860. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the only things state election laws in the 19th century typically specified about ballots were the paper size and thickness a ballot should be and the size of type to be used on it. The rest was left to candidates, parties and party operatives to decide.

And they did. Political parties and newspapers that supported specific parties printed and issued ballots with their all of their candidates' names on them to make partisan voting super simple. As the History Channel reports, "By the mid-19th century, state Republican or Democratic party officials would distribute pre-printed fliers to voters listing only their party’s candidates for office. They were called Republican and Democratic 'tickets' because the small rectangles of paper resembled 19th-century train tickets."

If you wanted to vote for a party's candidates, all you had to do was take the ticket they gave you to the ballot box and drop it in. Otherwise, you used a blank ballot and wrote in who you wanted to vote for.

Third, voting in the mid-19th century wasn't exactly safe, and it also wasn't secret.

Voting wasn't a confidential thing at this point in history. Preprinted party ballots had distinguishing marks, party symbols and candidate portraits on them and they were often printed on colored paper, making who you were voting for quite conspicuous. (For example, Virginia's Union party ballots in 1860 were pink, so if you dropped off a pink ballot, everyone at the polling place knew who you voted for.)

Elections in the mid-19th century were particularly contentious among the voting populace as well. Election day rioting and violence was common, claiming the lives of 89 Americans in the mid-1800s. The slaveholding South was already a tinderbox and tensions between the North and South were high—imagine trying to print and issue ballots for the anti-slavery-expansion Republican party when both election violence and violence against abolitionists was commonplace. What newspaper or printer in those Southern states would take that risk?

Fourth, issuing ballots in those states would have been a waste of resources for Lincoln and the Republicans, and they knew it.

Let's remember that the Republican party—Lincoln's party—was literally founded to combat the spread of slavery, the institution for which the antebellum South was willing to split the country in two. The official party was only a few years old when Lincoln was nominated. There was no support for Republican politics in the South, much less any party infrastructure in place there.

Since writing on a blank ballot or submitting a preprinted party ballot was how people voted in 1860, there would have been no point for the Republicans to print and issue ballots in the southern slaveholding strongholds. Lincoln knew he was considered persona non grata in those states and had no hope of winning Electoral College votes there against the three other candidates running, so he focused his campaign on the north and west. It simply would have been a huge waste of resources to issue ballots in states he couldn't possibly win. (As it turned out, Lincoln received no votes in any of the states that would soon form the Confederacy, with the exception of Virginia, where he received a whopping 1% of the vote.)

So to sum up, while it's true that ballots were not distributed for Lincoln in the 10 slaveholding states mentioned and he didn't receive any votes there, it's not true that those states barred or removed Lincoln from the ballot. In 1860, there was no such thing as a ballot with multiple candidates to choose from, candidate-specific ballots were issued by political parties and not state governmental authorities, and Lincoln and the Republicans simply didn't bother to try to distribute ballots in the states where they knew he didn't stand a chance.

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