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Gaining, Losing, and Winning Back the Vote: The Story of Utah Women’s Suffrage
Western suffragists, including Utahns Martha Hughes Cannon, Sarah M. Kimball, Emmeline B. Wells, and Zina D. H. Young, pose with national suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw at the 1895 Rocky Mountain Suffrage Meeting in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.
When Utah became a U.S. territory in 1850, all free white male inhabitants over the age of 21 had the right to vote if they were U.S. citizens. This meant many groups of people (including women) were not legally allowed to vote. In the years that followed, Utah became a leader in women’s suffrage, a movement to gain the right to vote for women. Although Wyoming Territory was first in the nation to extend voting rights to women citizens in December 1869, Utah Territory did so several weeks later, on February 12, 1870. Since Utah held municipal elections and a territorial election before Wyoming did, Utah women earned the distinction of casting ballots first. Seraph Young, a schoolteacher, was the first woman to vote under a women’s equal suffrage law in the United States when she cast her ballot in the Salt Lake City municipal election on February 14, 1870.
Receiving the Vote: Enfranchisement (1870)
Several groups of people supported women’s suffrage in Utah for very different reasons. Some leaders of the national suffrage movement hoped that allowing women to vote in western territories such as Utah would pave the way for women’s suffrage in the rest of the nation. In 1869, these suffragists supported proposed bills in Congress to give Utah women the right to vote. Although the bills did not pass, they sparked discussion about the benefits of allowing women to vote in Utah.
Artist unknown, “An Unsightly Object,” The Judge, 1882. Caption: “An Unsightly Object—Who Will Take an Axe and Hew It Down?”
The idea of women’s suffrage in Utah was linked with the Mormon practice of polygamy right from the start. In the late nineteenth century, members of the C hurch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy, a marriage system in which a husband could have more than one living wife. Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons,” called it “plural marriage” and considered it a core religious belief. However, many Americans considered polygamy morally wrong and oppressive to women.
Back in 1856, the Republican party had declared its commitment to ending the “twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.” After slavery was abolished and black men gained voting rights in the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, many American reformers turned their attention from ending slavery to ending polygamy. Initially, some believed giving Utah women voting rights would politically empower them to end polygamy.
Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, believed that Mormon women would use their vote to show their support for polygamy. They also thought giving women the vote would change negative perceptions about the LDS Church and its treatment of women. They wanted to show that Utah women were not oppressed, helpless, and enslaved as many anti-polygamists believed. Finally, granting suffrage to Utah women (most of whom were Mormon) would strengthen support for the People’s Party, a Utah political party recently organized by Mormons in opposition to the new Liberal Party, formed by non-Mormon settlers whose numbers were increasing in Utah.
Some Utah women also supported women’s suffrage. For example, in January 1870, several thousand Mormon women gathered in Salt Lake City to protest an anti-polygamy bill being debated by Congress. The organizers of this women’s meeting voted to ask Utah’s territorial governor for the right to vote.
Emmeline B. Wells. Photo courtesy of LDS Church History Library.
On February 12, 1870, Utah’s acting Governor signed a Woman Suffrage Bill that had unanimously passed the Utah Territorial Legislature. This law granted voting rights in local and territorial elections, but not the right to run for or hold public office, to “every woman of the age of twenty-one years who has resided in this Territory six months next preceding any general or special election, born or naturalized in the United States, or who is the wife, widow or the daughter of a native-born or naturalized citizen of the United States.” Seraph Young became Utah’s (and the nation’s) first female voter under an equal suffrage law two days later. Other women voted in municipal elections that spring, and thousands of Utah women cast ballots in the general election on August 1, 1870.
Gaining the vote broadened Utah women’s opportunities to participate in political life. Leaders of the Relief Society, the women’s organization of the LDS Church, developed programs to educate women about the political process and civic engagement. Utah women elected delegates like Emmeline B. Wells to represent them at national suffrage conventions and form ties with national leading suffragists like Susan B. Anthony. However, Utah women did not vote for candidates opposed to polygamy like anti-polygamists had hoped.
Losing the Vote: Disfranchisement (1871-1887)
Since giving Utah women the vote did not end polygamy, anti-polygamists lobbied U.S. Congress to pass anti-polygamy laws pressuring the LDS Church to disavow polygamy. Several proposed anti-polygamy bills also included measures to revoke women’s suffrage. Many Utah women opposed these bills by holding protest meetings and petitioning Congress not to disfranchise them. Still, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887. Part of this legislation took away the voting rights of all Utah women, whether they were Mormon or not, polygamous or monogamous , married or single.
Winning Back the Vote: Re-enfranchisement (1887-1896)
Left to Right: Emily S. Richards (co-founder of Utah Woman Suffrage Association), Phebe Y. Beattie (executive committee chair of UWSA), and Sarah M. Kimball (second president of UWSA). Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
Utah women had been voters for seventeen years, so many of them were outraged when Congress took those rights away. They worked hard to win suffrage back. They created the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah, an affiliate of Susan B. Anthony’s National American Woman Suffrage Association, and organized local chapters throughout the territory. However, not all women in Utah wanted women’s suffrage. Some opposed it because they thought Mormon women’s votes would continue to uphold polygamy, while others thought women should not be involved in politics.
In 1890, LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff officially ended the practice of polygamy. With this change in policy, Congress passed the 1894 Enabling Act, inviting Utah to again apply to enter the Union as a state. (Congress had rejected Utah Territory’s prior attempts over the previous four decades, largely because of polygamy.) During Utah’s 1895 Constitutional Convention, delegates debated whether to include women’s suffrage and right to hold public office in the state constitution that Utah would propose to Congress.
In contrast to other parts of the nation, most Utahns supported a woman’s right to vote and hold office. Both national political parties in Utah–Democrat and Republican–supported these rights in their party platforms, and women’s suffrage organizations throughout the territory lobbied delegates to include these rights in Utah’s constitution. Despite minor opposition, the delegates voted to include a clause in the constitution that granted women’s suffrage and the right to hold office. Article 4, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution states: “The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.” A few months later, Utah’s male electorate voted overwhelmingly to approve the proposed constitution. Utah women were given back the vote, or re-enfranchised, when Congress accepted Utah’s constitution and granted Utah statehood in 1896.
Article 4, Section 1 from the Utah State Constitution, Elections and Right of Suffrage. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
Utah Women and the National Suffrage Movement (1896-1920)
When Utah gained statehood, only two other states–Wyoming and Colorado–allowed women to vote. Suffragists across the nation were still working toward a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage. Many Utah women continued to work with national suffrage organizations by providing funding, serving in leadership positions, circulating petitions, and attending and speaking at national and international women’s rights conventions.
More than 70 years after the women’s rights movement began, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in August 1920, granting women’s suffrage throughout the nation. It states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Members of the executive committee of the national suffragists’ convention and prominent local suffragists snapped this photo with Senator Reed Smoot in August 1915 outside of the Hotel Utah, after meeting with him to ensure his support for a federal women’s suffrage amendment in the next Congress. From L to R: Marie Mahon of New York, Hannah S. Lapish, Emmeline B. Wells, Senator Reed Smoot, Lily C. Wolstenhome, Elizabeth Hayward, Margaret Zane Cherdron, Lucy A. Clark, Mrs. J. H. Saxson, Mrs. A. D. Paine, Lillie T. Freeze, Ruth M. Fox, Mrs. Charles Livingston, Mrs. L. R. Tanner, and Mrs. M. B. Lawrence. Photo courtesy of the National Woman’s Party.
After 1920: The Struggle for Minority Voting Rights Continues
Although the 19th Amendment granted women’s suffrage nationally, the fight for universal suffrage in the United States was not over. Not all women residing in Utah were granted the vote in 1870 or with statehood in 1896 or with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Though the 14 th Amendment had earlier defined “citizens” as any person born in the United States, the amendment was interpreted to restrict the citizenship rights (including the right to vote) of many. For example, since Native Americans were not considered U.S. citizens during this time period, they were excluded from women’s voting rights in Utah in 1870 and 1896, and nationally in 1920. Legal barriers enacted in numerous states effectively made it impossible for African Americans to vote. Many Asian immigrants in the United States were legally prohibited from applying for citizenship (and gaining voting rights) simply because of their countries of origin.
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Civil Rights Leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
These minority groups strengthened their rights to citizenship and voting through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (which granted full citizenship to indigenous people born in the U.S.), the McCarran–Walter Act of 1952 (which permitted Asian immigrants to become naturalized citizens), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which prohibited barriers at state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their suffrage rights).
Even after the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, many states, including Utah, still made local laws and policies that prohibited Native Americans from voting, arguing that Native Americans living on reservations were residents of their own nations and thus non-residents of the states. On February 14, 1957, the Utah state legislature repealed its legislation that had prevented Native Americans living on reservations from voting, becoming one of the last states to do so.
Utah Women Today
The work continues for women’s rights and minority rights in Utah and throughout the nation. The year 2020 will mark the 150th anniversary of women first voting in Utah and the 100th anniversary of women voting nationally. As we celebrate and learn about these historical events, the sacrifices and commitment of Utah’s strong women in the past will inspire Utah’s strong women of today. We envision a bright future for Utah as women become more engaged participants in our communities. As in the past, the passionate involvement of women and men working together to elevate women’s status will bring about better days for Utah.
To register to vote in Utah, an applicant must be a citizen of the United States, a resident of Utah for at least 30 days prior to the election, and at least 18 years old by the next general election. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds may preregister to vote, and 17-year-olds may vote in primary elections when they will turn 18 by the general election. ΐ] Α] Registration can be completed online or by mailing in a form. Β] The deadline to register is 11 days before the election. Γ] ΐ] Δ]
Utah has implemented an online voter registration system. Residents can register to vote by visiting this website.
In 2018, Utah enacted same-day voter registration voters may register by provisional ballot. Ε]
Prospective voters must be residents of the state for at least 30 days before the election.
Verification of citizenship
Utah does not require proof of citizenship for voter registration.
Verifying your registration
The Utah Lieutenant Governor’s office allows residents to check their voter registration status online by visiting this website.
Women’s Suffrage: 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment
As a woman today, it is easy to take for granted the ability to stand in line and cast a ballot during local and national elections. It has only been 100 years since the right to vote became a federal right, thanks to the 19 th Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920. It might be easy to forget the 144-year struggle since our nation’s founding in 1776.
1776 was a year with promise in the air with the founding of our nation, quickly followed by the first state (New Jersey) granting voting rights to all adults without regard to gender or race. For thirty years in New Jersey, women who met the eligibility requirements voted. Unfortunately, no other states had followed New Jersey’s lead. Women’s suffrage ended in 1807, when New Jersey rescinded women’s voting rights.
For sixty-three years, women did not participate in elections anywhere in the United States. How surprised would you be to learn that the first women to vote again would be from Utah Territory? In 1870, two months after Wyoming Territory became the first to grant women the right to vote and run for public office, Utah women cast the first ballots after the territory also granted voting rights to women. Utah women hold the honor of being the first to vote because Wyoming Territory had not yet held an election.
Utah women exercised their right to vote for seventeen years until Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887 that prohibited polygamy and rescinded women’s suffrage. Once again women had to organize for suffrage support, which they regained with Utah statehood in 1896. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho (in that order) granted full suffrage as they achieved statehood. After these four western states opened the door to women’s suffrage, it never closed again. Nearly every state in the western United States granted full suffrage rights to women in the early 1900s.
As a collaboration between Better Days 2020 and the Utah Division of State History to celebrate the 100 th anniversary of the 19 th amendment, a new story map “Women’s Suffrage: How the West Led the Way” is now available in our map gallery.
Slavery in Utah
Although the practice was never widespread, some Utah pioneers held African-American slaves until 1862 when Congress abolished slavery in the territories. Three slaves, Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby, came west with the first pioneer company in 1847, and their names appear on a plaque on the Brigham Young Monument in downtown Salt Lake City. The Census of 1850 reported 26 Negro slaves in Utah and the 1860 Census 29 some have questioned those figures.
Slavery was legal in Utah as a result of the Compromise of 1850, which brought California into the Union as a free state while allowing Utah and New Mexico territories the option of deciding the issue by “popular sovereignty.” Some Mormon pioneers from the South had brought African-American slaves with them when they migrated west. Some freed their slaves in Utah others who went on to California had to emancipate them there.
The Mormon church had no official doctrine for or against slaveholding, and leaders were ambivalent. In 1836 Joseph Smith wrote that masters should treat slaves humanely and that slaves owed their owners obedience. During his presidential campaign in 1844, however, he came out for abolition. Brigham Young tacitly supported slaveholding, declaring that although Utah was not suited for slavery the practice was ordained by God. In 1851 Apostle Orson Hyde said the church would not interfere in relations between master and slave.
The Legislature formally sanctioned slaveholding in 1852 but cautioned against inhumane treatment and stipulated that slaves could be declared free if their masters abused them. Records document the sale of a number of slaves in Utah.
African Americans were not the only slaves bought and sold in the territory. The arrival of the pioneers in 1847 disrupted a thriving trade in Native American slaves. Utah-based Indians, particularly Chief Walkar’s band of Utes, served as procurers and middlemen in a slave-trading network that extended from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, and involved Spanish, Mexican, American, and Native American traders.
The Spanish settlers of the Caribbean and Central and South American relied heavily on native slave labor in their mines, fields, and households. In their settlements along the upper Rio Grande in New Mexico and their explorations northward, the Spanish made contact with many native peoples, including the Shoshonean speakers of Utah. The Spanish brought horses that the Utes, like the Sioux on the northern Plains, quickly adopted and used to establish dominance over surrounding tribes. The Spanish and, later, the Mexicans, wanted Native American slaves as domestic servants and field and ranch hands, and the Utes helped to obtain them.
The Mexicans and Utes generally preyed on the weaker Paiute peoples, seizing women and children in raids or trading horses to the Paiutes for captives. The Navajos also participated, sometimes raiding the Utes for slaves. The Indian slave trade was banned in New Mexico in 1812 and in California in 1824 because officials feared the practice would provoke intertribal warfare, but lax enforcement and high profits kept it going throughout the first half of the century. At its peak in the 1830s and 40s, Mexican trading parties regularly traveled the Old Spanish Trail, trading guns, horses, and trinkets for Native American slaves and selling the captives at trail’s end. Women and girls, prized as domestic servants, brought the highest prices–sometimes as much as $200.
In November 1851 eight Mexicans led by Pedro Leon were arrested for attempting to sell Indian slaves at Nephi. When Gov. Brigham Young arrived to confront the men they displayed an official trading license signed by New Mexico Gov. James Calhoun. Young denied the validity of the license and refused to grant them another. The men were tried before a justice of the peace at Manti and then brought before Judge Zerubbabel Snow of the First District Court in Salt Lake City. The traders claimed that Indians had stolen and eaten some of their horses and that when restitution was demanded the Paiutes gave them four girls and five boys in payment. The court fined the traders $50 each and let them leave for New Mexico.
Ironically, in an attempt to halt the Indian slave trade, Governor Young asked the Legislature in 1852 to pass an act that allowed the white possessor of an Indian prisoner to go before the local selectmen or county probate judge and if judged a “suitable person, and properly qualified to raise or retain and educate said Indian prisoner, child, or woman,” he could consider the Indian bound to an indenture not to exceed 20 years. Children had to be sent to school for set periods.
The act had the unintended effect of encouraging the slave trade. Ute traders brought children to Mormon settlements and reportedly threatened to kill them if they were not purchased. In 1853 Young warned all slave traders out of Utah and mobilized the territorial militia to enforce the ban. The Utes, angry over the disruption of the trade as well as white encroachment on their territory, reacted violently. An incident at the James Ivie cabin on July 17, 1853, triggered the so-called Walker War that disrupted the central Utah settlements. With the end of the war in 1854 and Chief Walkar’s death shortly thereafter, the trade in Native American slaves was largely subdued.
Sources: Ronald G. Coleman, “Blacks in Utah History: An Unknown Legacy,” in The Peoples of Utah, ed. Helen Z. Papanikolas (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1976) Dennis L. Lythgoe, “Negro Slavery in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 39 (1971) Lynn R. Bailey, Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1966) Carling and A. Arline Malouf, “The Effects of Spanish Slavery on the Indians of the Intermountain West,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology l (Autumn 1945) Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years among the Indians (Salt Lake City, 1890) Kate B. Carter, comp., Indian Slavery of the West (Salt Lake City, 1938).
WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE IN UTAH
W omen's Suffrage--the right of women to vote-- was won twice in Utah. It was granted first in 1870 by the territorial legislature but revoked by Congress in 1887 as part of a national effort to rid the territory of polygamy. It was restored in 1895, when the right to vote and hold office was written into the constitution of the new state.
In sharp contrast to the long fight for women's suffrage nationally, the vote came to Utah women in 1870 without any effort on their part. It had been promoted by a group of men who had left the Mormon church, the Godbeites, in their Utah Magazine, but to no immediate effect. At the same time, an unsuccessful effort to gain the vote for women in Utah territory had been launched in the East by antipolygamy forces they were convinced that Utah women would vote to end plural marriage if given the chance. Brigham Young and others realized that giving Utah women the vote would not mean the end of polygamy, but it could change the predominant national image of Utah women as downtrodden and oppressed and could help to stem a tide of antipolygamy legislation by Congress. With no dissenting votes, the territorial legislature passed an act giving the vote (but not the right to hold office) to women on 10 February 1869. The act was signed two days later by the acting governor, S. A. Mann, and on 14 February, the first woman voter in the municipal election reportedly was Sarah Young, grandniece of Brigham Young. Utah thus became the second territory to give the vote to women Wyoming had passed a women's suffrage act in 1869. No states permitted women to vote at the time.
Despite efforts of national suffrage leaders to protect the vote for Utah women from congressional action, it was taken away by the Edmunds-Tucker antipolygamy act in 1887. It was clear that a strong organizing effort would be needed to restore it.
Utah women, both Mormon and non-Mormon, had become active in the National Woman Suffrage Association, but were divided over the suffrage issue within Utah. Many non-Mormon suffragists supported the principle of universal suffrage but held that granting the vote to Utah women would only strengthen the political power of the Mormon Church.
In 1888 Emily S. Richards, wife of the Mormon church attorney, Franklin S. Richards, approached church officials with a proposal to form a Utah suffrage association affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association. With church approval, the territorial association was formed on 10 January 1889 with leading roles given to women who were not involved in polygamous marriages. Margaret N. Caine, wife of Delegate to Congress John T. Caine, was the president and Emily Richards was appointed a state organizer. Acting quickly, Mrs. Richards organized local units throughout the territory. Many, if not all of them, sprang from the women's auxiliary organizations of the church, most notably the Relief Society. The Woman's Exponent , an unofficial publication for Mormon women, took up the cause with zeal. Yet progress was stalled until the 1890 Manifesto officially declared an end to plural marriage, and Congress passed the 1894 Enabling Act, opening the door to statehood.
With statehood in sight, the women swung into action, resolved that the right to vote and hold office would be put into the new constitution. They managed to get planks favoring women's suffrage into both Democratic and Republican party platforms in 1894 but realized that more grassroots organizations must be formed to apply political pressure to the 107 male delegates elected to the Constitutional Convention. By mid-February of 1895, nineteen of Utah's twenty-seven counties had suffrage organizations. Most of the delegates were inclined to vote for the enfranchisement of women but there were those, including the influential Brigham H. Roberts, member of the church's First Council of Seventy, who felt otherwise.
The final struggle for suffrage began with the convening of Utah's constitutional convention in March of 1895. In lengthy debates, Roberts and other opponents expressed fears that if women's suffrage became part of the new constitution it would not be accepted by Congress. Some non-Mormon delegates feared that Utah women would be used as pawns by their husbands and church leaders to threaten the rights of the non-Mormon minority. Others argued that women's traditional roles as wife and mother were threatened and that women were too good to get into the dirty mire of politics. Proponents ridiculed these arguments, contending that women should be given the vote as a matter of simple justice and that they would be a purifying and cleansing force in politics.
Despite a move to put the matter to a separate vote, supporters of women's suffrage managed to get it written into the new Utah Constitution by a comfortable majority. The new document was adopted on 5 November 1895 with a provision that "the rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges."
Utah women probably succeeded in 1895 where women elsewhere had failed because their efforts were approved by leaders of the main political force in the state--the Mormon church. Leading suffragists, in addition to Margaret Caine and Emily Richards, included relatives and friends of church leaders: Emmeline B. Wells, editor of the Exponent Zina D. H. Young, wife of Brigham Young Jane Richards, wife of Apostle Franklin D. Richards and Sarah M. Kimball, among many others. They could not be dismissed as fire-eating radicals. They were highly skilled at organizing women and mobilizing political support. They could also point to the period when Utah women had voted--without noticeable harm to themselves or the Territory. Thus they won a right granted at that time only in two states, in a struggle unique to Utah in its entanglement with the issues of polygamy and statehood.
Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994.
Are you registered to vote?
Utah&rsquos rich history of inspiring women started early and has only strengthened since. Picking just 10 people leaves out so much &ndash so many dynamic figures, so many compelling moments, amazing achievements and powerful accomplishments completed in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Some of the state&rsquos most notable names didn&rsquot quite make it into the list of 10 or else didn&rsquot quite qualify.
Hannah Kaaepa, an early advocate for Hawaiian women&rsquos rights who joined leading Utah suffragists in speaking before the National Council of women, died in 1918, just two years before the 19th Amendment passed, making her ineligible.
It was a similar case with Fanny Brooks, the first Jewish woman to settle in Utah, whose discussions with early Latter-day Saints leader Brigham Young helped lead to better relations between Mormons and nonmembers. She died in 1901.
Others, like historian Helen Papanikolas, Shoshone tribal historian Mae Timbimboo Parry and Marie Cornwall, founder of the Marriott Library and retired director of the Women&rsquos Research Institute at Brigham Young University, would have been worthy choices but did not, in the end, make the list of 10.
Those included here come from various generations and across the spectrum of categories, but all have been champions of that same pioneering spirit of those 5,000 women who gathered in Salt Lake City 150 years earlier.
Voting by Mail Dates Back to America’s Earliest Years. Here’s How It’s Changed Over the Years
L iving through the COVID-19 pandemic has been compared to living through wartime. Now, the list of parallels is growing: according to a New York Times analysis, when Americans vote this November election offices could receive more than double the number of mailed ballots they received in 2016.
In the U.S., showing up in person to cast one’s ballot on Election Day has always been the standard way of exercising that fundamental right. But over the centuries, voting by mail has become an attractive alternative for many&mdashthanks in large part to the influence of wartime necessity.
Even the scattered examples of absentee voting (the terms are often used interchangeably) that can be traced to the colonial era tend to fit the pattern: In 17th-century Massachusetts, men could vote from home if their homes were “vulnerable to Indian attack,” according to historian Alex Keyssar’s book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, and the votes of some Continental Army soldiers were presented in writing “as if the men were present themselves” in Hollis, N.H., in 1775 during the American Revolution.
But it was during the Civil War that America first experimented with absentee voting on a large scale, as so many of the men who were eligible to vote were away from home fighting. During the 1864 presidential election&mdashin which Republican incumbent President Abraham Lincoln defeated Democratic candidate George McClellan&mdashUnion soldiers voted in camps and field hospitals, under the supervision of clerks or state officials.
&ldquoExcuse-required absentee voting started during the Civil War&mdasha product of the competition between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan,&rdquo Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College and founder of the non-partisan Early Voting Information Center, told TIME in 2016. &ldquoLincoln wanted to assure that he got the votes of the soldiers who were serving away from home.&rdquo
After the Civil War ended, the same logic held. In later conflicts, states increasingly made it possible for soldiers away from home to vote. During World War I, nearly all states let soldiers vote from afar “at least during war time,” according to Keyssar’s book. And it was in that same time period that people with a non-military, work-related reason for being away from home on Election Day started to be able to vote absentee, too. At the 1917-1918 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, one delegate advocated for accommodating those “in industry”, arguing that railroad employees and traveling salesmen who are away from home on Election Day are “toiling and sacrificing…for the common good,” just as soldiers do.
Industrialization and the expansion of transportation options allowed people to travel far and wide in the growing national economy, making that argument all the more powerful. Some laws required witnesses and a notary public’s signature, but officials were looking for a way to make sure that people on the road could still have their electoral voices heard.
“In the early 20th century, we’re becoming a much more mobile country,” says John C. Fortier, author of Absentee and Early Voting and director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “States will make exceptions for certain types of people, such as railroad workers, or people who are sick. There is a movement&mdashnot nationally, we do everything differently state by state&mdashbut of states adopting some form of voting for selected populations who met certain criteria.”
In the decades that followed, people who voted by mail generally had to have a specific reason for not being able to vote in person on Election Day. That began to change in 1978, when California became the first state to allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse, according to Gronke.
Oregon also claims several firsts in the history of voting by mail. The first entirely mail-in federal primary election took place in the state in 1995, and the first mail-only general election took place in the state in 1996, when Ron Wyden was elected to the U.S. Senate to replace Bob Packwood, who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. Since 2000, after 70% of voters approved a ballot initiative instituting the program, Oregon has been an all vote-by-mail state.
As TIME reported in its recent roundup of state laws for voting by mail in 2020, five states were already holding entirely mail-in elections before the pandemic&mdashColorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Twenty-nine states and Washington D.C. allowed &ldquono excuse&rdquo mail-in absentee voting, and 16 states allowed voters to cast a ballot by mail if they had an excuse. In the 2016 presidential election, about 1 in 4 voters cast their votes via ballots mailed to them. Despite claims of vote fraud when voting is conducted outside of polling places, only 0.00006% of the 250 million votes by mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent, according to MIT political scientists who analyzed numbers from the Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database.
In addition, scholars at Stanford University’s Democracy and Polarization Lab analyzing 1996-2018 data in three of these universal vote-by-mail states (California, Utah and Washington) didn’t find vote-by-mail advantaged one political party over another&mdashcontrary to President Trump’s claim that Republicans would never win an election again if vote-by-mail programs expanded&mdashand only found a “modest increase in overall average turnout rates.”
Vote-by-mail programs, as Fortier puts it, are “generally not pulling more people into the voting place, except for making it more convenient for those who vote anyway.”
During a period of time full of uncertainties, election officials say American voters can count on vote-by-mail programs being “safe and secure.” What’s also certain is that the 2020 Election is another milestone in the centuries-long history of voting by mail.
Utah Voting History - History
In 1920, the 19 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted many women in the nation the right to vote for the first time. Fifty years earlier, Utah had been among the first territories to enfranchise women, and Utah allowed women’s suffrage again in 1895 after statehood. Despite these advances and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, key groups still remained excluded. To reflect on the meaning of these significant anniversaries, Utah State University will host an interdisciplinary symposium in fall 2020 that commemorates the historic events that gave political rights to women, but that also reflects on ongoing struggles for access to the vote.
Utah Voting History - History
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