Brief history of the right to vote

EDITOR’S NOTE: This page is part of a comprehensive guide to voting rights in the United States and Puerto Rico.

In the Old West, progressive politics made significant waves in the years following the Civil War. Just look at Wyoming, where women have had the right to vote since 1869, 20 years before the territory became the nation’s 44th state in 1890, and more than 50 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.—

As many as 1,000 women were eligible to vote in Wyoming in the 1870 elections, and many turned out to vote.

“Wyoming is the first place in God’s green earth that could consistently claim to be the land of the free,” Susan B. Anthony applauded.

Women’s suffrage had major defenders at the time—the territory’s governor vetoed a measure by Democrats in the Legislature to strike down the suffrage provision in 1870. And the state refused to strike down women’s suffrage when the federal government conditioned statehood on such a measure in 1889.

Freedom and the right to vote were literally built into the Constitution and the tradition of the state. But so were nativism and xenophobia. At the same time that Wyoming editors chose to keep women’s suffrage on the books, they instituted a literacy qualification that seemed designed to prevent immigrants from playing a role in the political process.

This meant that former slaves who moved to western Wyoming after the Civil War could also be disenfranchised. It is unclear, however, whether the constitutional provision has ever been used at the polls, said Jennifer Helton, assistant professor of history at Ohlone College.

Susan B. Anthony, social reformer and suffragist
Wyoming is the first place in God’s green earth that could consistently claim to be the land of the free.

For decades after Wyoming held its first election that saw women vote, federal law ruled that any Native person seeking to vote must renounce their tribal citizenship and apply for U.S. citizenship, despite being born on American soil. Native Americans as a whole did not gain citizenship rights until 1924, and Asian immigrants were not allowed to vote for much of Wyoming’s ancient history.

But over the past 130 years, the state has continued, very slowly, to extend the franchise to disenfranchised members of the body politic.

Poll taxes, in effect since Wyoming became a territory, remained a staple of state election law until 1969. And Wyoming is one of eight states, mostly in the south, that never ratified the 24th Amendment that ended poll taxes nationwide. In 2017, the state restored the franchise to felons who kept clean public records for five years after serving sentences for a nonviolent first offense.

These days, Wyoming is controlled by a Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature. Its US senators, John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, are both Republicans. The same goes for the state’s only House member, Rep. Liz Cheney.

After the 2020 election, Republicans in Wyoming took action on election security, passing a voter ID law that requires voters at the polls to present accepted IDs before they can vote. The state accepts a wide variety of identification options, from tribal IDs to valid passports and public school student IDs.

But because of Wyoming’s racial homogeneity — non-Hispanic whites make up more than 83% of the state’s population — some political pundits have argued further voting restrictions are less likely to happen there.

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that in 2021, Republican-dominated states with high degrees of racial diversity like South Carolina and Mississippi passed more than double the number of restrictions on voting rights seen in states like Wyoming and Montana.

Gregory Svirnovskiy is a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @gsvirnovskiy or contact him by email at [email protected]

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