THE HISTORY OF IMMIGRANT VOTING RIGHTS
The Immigrant Voting Project and
New York University Law Students for Human Rights
Resident Noncitizen Voting in Minnesota:
Minnesota, like many other mid- and northwestern states, has an established tradition of non-citizen voting. The Organic Act of 1849, creating the territorial government of Minnesota, provided for voting by declarant aliens, stating:
That every free white male inhabitant above the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been a resident of said Territory at the time of the passage of this act, shall be entitled to vote at the first election, and shall be eligible to any office within the said Territory; but the qualifications of voters and of holding office at all subsequent elections shall be such as shall be prescribed by the legislative assembly; provided, that the right of suffrage and of holding office shall be exercised only by citizens of the United States and those who shall have declared on oath their intention to become such, and shall have taken an oath to support the constitution of the United States and the provisions of this act.
In 1857, the U.S. Congress considered an act to enable the territory of Minnesota to vote on whether it wished to be admitted to statehood. During the congressional debates on the measure, the practice of declarant alien voting received considerable attention. Claiming that “the right of suffrage ought to be confined to citizens of the United States,” Senator Biggs introduced an amendment in the Senate to require that voters on the statehood issue be United States citizens. While disclaiming any affiliation with the nativist “Know Nothing” party, proponents of the Biggs amendment defended their position by reference to the danger of foreign influence over elections, the susceptibility of newly-arrived immigrants to manipulation by political parties, and the importance of setting limits in order to prevent claims that suffrage should be extended to “both sexes, male and female… to black and red as well as white.” Perhaps most importantly, slave state representatives feared that abolitionist non-citizen voters might upset the precarious balance that existed between north and south on the slavery issue. Senator Bell of Tennessee worried that:
[L]ooking to the general aspect of the party divisions by which the country is distracted, and more particularly to the point of the intensity and magnitude of the interests depending on our national elections, you will see that foreigners not naturalized constitute an element of strength, distributed as they are in several of the northern and northwestern States, destined often to control our national elections, if they shall be allowed the privilege of voting; and thus they may, in the end, exert a powerful influence in changing the policy and even the vital principles of our Government.
On the other side, supporters of declarant alien voting such as Senator Seward argued that non-citizens were just as capable of exercising self-government as citizens, and alien suffrage was desirable “precisely for the reason that these new States are to be made chiefly by aliens and foreigners.” In the end, those favoring non-citizen voting won the day. Although the Senate adopted Senator Biggs’s amendment in their version of the bill, the final act allowed any “legal voter,” including qualified aliens, to vote on statehood. Minnesota subsequently reaffirmed its commitment to declarant alien suffrage in its first state constitution, adopted in 1857.
Minnesota continued its practice of noncitizen voting until 1896, when, by a vote of 97,980 to 52,454, Minnesota voters approved a Constitutional amendment prohibiting aliens from voting. The repeal of noncitizen voting in Minnesota formed part of a broader trend away from noncitizen voting in the late 19th and early 20th century, motivated in part by the widespread view that newer immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were unfit for the ballot. A Washington Post editorial of 1902, criticizing those states who had yet to repeal alien suffrage and referring to the “marked and increasing deterioration in the quality of immigration,” captured the prevailing attitude: “Men who are no more fit to be trusted with the ballot than babies are to be furnished with friction matches for playthings are coming in by the hundred thousand.”
Since the repeal of declarant alien voting in 1896, Minnesota has required U.S. citizenship for voting. The amended Constitution in force today reads:
Every person 18 years of age or more who has been a citizen of the United States for three months and who has resided in the precinct for 30 days next preceding an election shall be entitled to vote in that precinct. The place of voting by one otherwise qualified who has changed his residence within 30 days preceding the election shall be prescribed by law. The following persons shall not be entitled or permitted to vote at any election in this state: A person not meeting the above requirements; a person who has been convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights; a person under guardianship, or a person who is insane or not mentally competent.
In recent years, however, a movement has emerged to revive Minnesota’s tradition of non-citizen voting at the local level. In January 2003, a group of state legislators introduced a bill to amend the Minnesota Constitution to authorize local government to permit permanent resident voting in local elections. The bill was referred to the Committee on Governmental Operations and Veterans Affairs Policy, where it died. However, a new bill was introduced in February 2005.
 Cong. Globe, 34th Cong., 3rd Sess. 811.
 Id. at 810. Senator Brown feared that, “There may be in this Territory Norwegians, who do not read one word of English… What a mockery, and what a trifling with sacred institutions it is to allow such people to go to the polls and vote! Who does not know that they are led up like cattle to the ballot-boxes, and vote as they are told to vote?”
 Id. at 814.
 Raskin, supra note 21, at 1409.
 Cong. Globe, 34th Cong., 3rd Sess. 811.
 Id. at 813.
 Enabling Act for a State of Minnesota, Act Authorizing a State Government (Feb. 26, 1857).
 Raskin, supra note 21, at 1407. See also¸ Rosberg, supra note NOTEREF _Ref87727585 \h 11 , 1099 n. 36.
 “For Intelligent Suffrage,” Washington Post, July 29, 1902, at 6.
 Minn. Const. Art. 7, §1.
 See H.R. 71, 83rd Reg. Sess. (Minn. 2003).