elections in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Elections in Wisconsin

elections in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


People have been voting in Wisconsin since the 1820s. Not every Wisconsin resident has been allowed to vote or hold office since then, however. Suffrage has been granted to different groups over time due to the hard work of voting rights activists. 

The First Elections

The first known vote was in 1825 in Green Bay. After Wisconsin became a territory in 1836, every white male citizen of the United States above 21 years of age who lived in the territory was entitled to vote and, if elected, hold office. All township and county offices except judicial officers, justices of the peace, sheriffs, and clerks of the court were elective.

The first act of the legislative assembly of 1838 was to provide for and regulate general elections. The law provided that a voter must be a free white male citizen or a foreigner duly naturalized, and must have had six months' residence in the territory.

Proposed Election Rules, 1846

In 1846, when Wisconsin was preparing to become a state, the legislature changed the voting rules. They enacted that every white male citizen above the age of 21, who had lived in the territory at least six months prior to the election, and who was either a citizen of the United States or had declared his intention to become one, was authorized to vote for or against the draft state constitution.

Political leaders also included a provision in the 1846 draft constitution that would have allowed African Americans to vote. This was too radical an idea for the time and was rejected by voters — all of them white, by definition. Not until 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader in Milwaukee's black community, sued for the right to vote and carried his case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, were the Court decided unanimously in favor of Black Suffrage, and found that African American’s in the state had been entitled to vote since 1849. When voters rejected the 1846 draft constitution, legislators met again the following year to revise it and put a different version before the voters.

Revised Election Rules, 1848

The revised state constitution adopted in 1848 prescribed the qualifications for voters as: "All white male persons of the age of 21, or upward, belonging to any of the following classes shall constitute the qualified electors: (1) Citizens of the United States who at the time of the adoption of this constitution were actual residents of state; (2) Citizens of the United States having become residents of the state of Wisconsin after the adoption of the constitution who have resided in the state 6 months; (3) Persons not citizens of the United States who at the time of the adoption of this constitution were actually residents of the state and had declared their intention to become citizens of the United States and who shall have resided in the state six months. Persons mentally incompetent and those convicted of crime excepted from the above."

Expanding the Right to Vote 

In 1919, with the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution white women gained the right to vote. 

Native Americans were barred from voting in national elections until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, Asian American immigrants were excluded from voting until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which banned any voting law that discriminated against racial or language minorities that voting was more fully opened to Black and Latinx people.


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