The Immigrant Voting Project and
New York University Law Students for Human Rights
Resident Noncitizen Voting in Wisconsin:
Wisconsin was the first state to enshrine the practice of “declarant alien” voting in its Constitution. First adopted in 1848, Wisconsin’s Constitution granted suffrage to aliens who had resided in the state for one year and “declared their intention to become citizens, comformably to the laws of the United States on the subject of naturalization.” The Constitution was the product of two contentious conventions during which delegates had clashed over whether to include several reformist provisions favored by the “Barnburner” wing of the Democratic party. Among other measures, the Barnburners wanted to secure property rights for married women, suffrage for blacks, and a ban on banks. However, after the first convention’s reformist constitution failed to gain sufficient support from Wisconsin voters, the second convention removed the most radical provisions. In the area of suffrage, the Constitution took a compromise position: While initially enfranchising only white (or, in some cases, Native American) males, it included a clause to allow the legislature, with the approval of the electorate, to enfranchise other groups without amending the Constitution. The provision on declarant alien suffrage also represented a compromise position. As Raskin points out, declarant alien voting appeased many who opposed non-citizen voting in general because declarant voting could be more easily viewed as “a pathway to citizenship rather than a possible substitute for it.”
In the years after Wisconsin constitutionalized the practice of declarant alien voting, the national government confirmed declarant aliens’ special status as midway between aliens and citizens. During the Civil War, the Enrolment Act of March 3, 1863 declared that declarant aliens could be drafted. Those who had declared their intention to become citizens but had not yet voted were given 65 days to renounce their intent and leave the country, but those who had already exercised their right to vote were subject to the draft immediately.
Declarant aliens enjoyed suffrage rights in Wisconsin for sixty years, until Wisconsin passed a Constitutional amendment eliminating non-citizen voting in 1908 as part of a bigger constitutional reform to institute an income tax. At the time, an influx of Slavic immigrants into a traditionally German and English community had begun to create social tensions, and so the established ethnic groups moved to exclude the newcomers. The current version of the Constitution provides that “Every United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district.” The current state electoral laws state that “every U.S. citizen 18 or older” who meets residence requirements is eligible to vote.
Leaving aside the repeal of Wisconsin’s original alien suffrage provisions, room still remains in the Wisconsin constitution for the legislature and voters to reinstate non-citizen voting. Throughout years of amendments, Wisconsin’s Constitution has retained the spirit of its 1848 compromise clause, which was designed to allow the legislature to enfranchise African Americans. Art. II, § 2 of the current Constitution provides that “Laws may be enacted… Subject to ratification by the people at a general election, extending the right of suffrage to additional classes.”
 Wis. Const. art. III, §1 (1848). See also Raskin, supra note 21, at N84, N85.
 Raskin, supra note 21, at 1407.
 Gerald L. Neuman, “We Are the People”: Alien Suffrage in German and American Perspective, 13 Mich. J. Int’l L. 259, n305 (1992).
 Wis. Const. art. III §1.
 Wis. Stat. §6.02.
 Wis. Const. art. III, §2.