Through wars, depressions, pandemics — the votes have been counted

Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln by Edward Brewer.

The 200-year-old story of how Americans choose their leaders is one of the most interesting, intriguing and controversial sets of lessons I teach my middle school history classes. It can also be one of the most reassuring, especially in times like these.

History tells us one thing has remained constant throughout the past two-plus centuries of the United States: Our elections have continued to occur, despite the challenges our country was facing — and the will of the people wins in the end.

With that history in mind, I believe that this election, however combative, can, should, and will result in our ballots being counted, and that our process will be followed for selecting our elected leaders.

The most contentious election in our history was in 1860 and led to the loss of more than 750,000 lives in the Civil War. Despite that, our nation still held our elections in 1862 and 1864. 

In fact, our Minnesota Legislature passed a law that ensured enlisted soldiers would be able to vote from the battlefields. On Election Day 1862, election judges checked the soldiers’ names against the list of registered voters, opened the envelope in which the ballot had been preserved and deposited it in the ballot box with all other votes. 

More than 4,750 Minnesota soldiers voted in the 1862 election, accounting for nearly 15% of the total vote. From that auspicious beginning, our state has now had more than 150 years of trusted absentee voting.

Throughout the years of the Great Depression, Minnesotans and Americans would still cast their ballots. During World War 1, Minnesotans and Americans exercised their constitutional right to vote. 

As if a global war were not enough, the midterm elections of 1918 required candidates to campaign in ways that were new to them — but now familiar to us — as the Spanish Influenza shut down schools, churches and businesses throughout the country. 

Similar to this year, large scale rallies could not take place without putting everyone at risk. Mask orders were in place at polling places.

The San Francisco Chronicle declared it was, “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” Yet, the election continued. The votes were certified. The newly elected officials assumed office and a peaceful transition of power occurred again.

A little more than two decades later, our country faced an even greater threat to democracy in 1940 and 1944 during the Second World War. That could not stop millions of voters from having their voices heard.

The Civil War, global wars, a Great Depression, numerous recessions and global pandemics have not stopped our elections, the process of counting our votes, or the orderly transition of power.

This doesn’t always mean that everyone is happy with the outcomes. In 1992, for example, George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton. In a letter he left for the incoming president on Inauguration Day, President Bush wrote:

“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.”

It’s true that our shared history has many counter-examples of bitter political divides; we have certainly seen them throughout our lifetimes. But, we have the ability, and I would argue the obligation, to put our country first.

In his farewell address, George Washington stated: 

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” 

Washington feared that loyalty to party over the common good could bring our entire notion of democracy to a halt. Many feel like we’re now on the cusp of Washington’s nightmare, but I don’t.

We are bigger than our political parties because Minnesotans are one, regardless of what we look like, how we pray, who we love or where we’re from. 

Our struggle, which is an eternal struggle, is to continue to make our country a more perfect union and expand access to democracy to everyone, with no exceptions.

Now it’s our turn to prove that nothing — not even this pandemic, or bitter political divisions — will stand in the way of casting our vote and counting every ballot to ensure that our democracy continues.

Just as the hundreds of millions before us have done.