Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Historic Changes in Wisconsin Primary Law

Historic changes in Wisconsin Primary Law | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeSenator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., a third-party presidential candidate, prepares to drop his ballot into the ballot box

Robert M. La Follette, Sr., Casts His Vote, 1924

Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., a third-party presidential candidate, prepares to drop his ballot into the ballot box. In line behind him are (left to right) his sons, Philip F. La Follette and Robert La Follette, Jr., and Phil's wife, Isabel Bacon La Follette. The man behind the ballot box has been identified as B. Frank Piper. RECORD DETAILS View the original source document: WHI 30223

EnlargeExterior view from across Langdon Street of the Red Gym (Armory or Old Red) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Red Gym

Exterior view from across Langdon Street of the Red Gym (Armory or Old Red) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. View the original source document: WHI 67842

Did you know that the excitement we associate with presidential primaries is a modern thing? Before 1912, you couldn't even vote in a presidential primary! Candidates used to be chosen behind closed doors by party bosses who traded favors, political appointments, and cash to put friends on the ballot. "Wherever there was a close contest in a nominating convention," recalled Sen. Irvine Lenroot, "those who were willing to bribe delegates seldom failed to find some who were willing to be bribed."

La Follette challenges the state's corrupt election system and demands reform

Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925) made the elimination of this corrupt system a centerpiece of his progressive reforms in Wisconsin. He called for direct primary elections where voters could choose their own candidates. However, he was thwarted by incumbents in his own party for years. When La Follette's supporters gained control of the state Legislature in 1903, lawmakers forced a referendum on the issue to be held in November 1904. That summer's Republican Convention was scheduled to be held in the University of Wisconsin - Madison's Red Gym. La Follette learned that his opponents planned to pack the convention and seize control of the party. To put a stop to this, he hired UW football players and wrestlers to work security at the event. Every delegate had to show legitimate credentials and run a gauntlet of tough guys to get into the Convention. Reform carried the day at the Republican Convention. Later that year, voters endorsed primary elections in the November referendum. In its first incarnation, the law only applied to state-level offices - not presidential elections. The system was used for the first time in 1906. La Follette got a rude surprise. He handpicked Irvine Lenroot to succeed him as governor and persuaded progressive Republicans to support his choice. However, the voters chose acting governor James O. Davidson to be the Republican candidate.

Primary law is expanded and allows Wisconsin voters to vote in presidential primaries

In 1911, Wisconsin's primary law was expanded to include presidential candidates. Our first presidential primary was held in April 1912. Women won the right to vote in 1920 and since then, we've all had a voice in presidential primaries. For more on the history of primaries in Wisconsin, view the excellent page prepared by WisPolitics.com.

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