Tag Archives: Legislature

An Overview of the Poll Tax in Wyoming

The poll tax was an integral part of Wyoming since the territory’s inception.  The Territorial Legislature required counties to impose a poll tax of two dollars ($25.94 in 2015) for each adult.  Initially, it applied only to individuals over the age 21.  In 1873, the territorial legislature limited it to individuals between the ages of 21 and 50.   Later, firemen and their wives and veterans were exempted from the poll tax.

Money raised from this tax was delegated to funding schools.  This provision would be incorporated into the state constitution.  In 1909, a new statute allowed county commissioners’ could institute a special poll tax to pay for roads.

The (WSA Session Laws of Wyoming, 1873)

The statute passed by the 1873 State Legislature limited those responsible for the poll tax to citizens over the age of 21. It did not specify what the money raised would be used. The only penalty for non-payment was a seizure and sale of property to pay the tax by the sheriff or collection agent. It does not appear that non-payment threatened the individual’s access to the polls on voting day.
(WSA Session Laws of Wyoming, 1873)

The poll tax seems to have elicited little discussion in Wyoming circles. Elsewhere, it was a serious matter.   In many states, particularly in the South, failure to pay one’s poll tax resulted in the loss of voting rights.  In Wyoming, failure to pay a poll tax put an individual on a delinquent list.  If still unpaid after a period of time, a person’s property could be seized and sold or wages garnished.

Legislation already defined in broad terms, who could and who could not vote.  Moreover, there is no connection between paying a poll tax and the right to vote.  It seems that the only connection between poll taxes and voting was that poll tax records were used to compile a list of qualified voters.  

In 1890, the state legislature passed legislation that made it unnecessary for individuals to pay their poll tax in order to vote.  One can only guess at the legislature’s generosity.  Maybe they saw this as a way to push the process of statehood forward.  We may never know the true reason.

Telegraph from ___ to Governor Hansen  (WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Telegraph from US Senate leadership to Governor Hansen urging him to ask the State Legislature to discuss ratification.
(WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

In 1962, Congress passed a resolution to amend the US Constitution by barring the poll tax as a requirement for voting in federal elections.  In January 1963 Sen. Gale McGee fervently encouraged Governor Clifford Hansen to get Wyoming to support the amendment.  McGee believed that “it would be in the interest of our State to have the legislature consider the proposal during its present session . . .”   Two months later, US Senators Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen also strongly urged Governor Hansen to should push the Wyoming legislature to support the amendment.  In their cable they stated that  “The strength and vitality of our democratic processes rests upon every qualified citizen expressing his views through the ballot – surely in this day, those otherwise qualified to vote should not be prevented from doing so by the anachronistic device of a poll tax.”    

Letter from Sen. McGee to Governor Hansen. (WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Letter from Sen. McGee to Governor Hansen personally urging consideration of the amendment in the State Legislature.
(WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Governor Hansen did not share any of the senators’ enthusiasm.  Moreover, even if the political logic seemed to have little effect on him, the matter was poorly timed.  At the time of McGee’s letter, the legislature was already in mid-session.   Hansen acknowledged Magee’s letter and in a dry, dispassionate terms that he had sent a memorandum to the speaker of the House and the President of the Senate to “take whatever action they deem advisable.”  After the legislative session had concluded, he stonily reported that no action had been taken by either chamber.  

Letter from Governor Hansen. (WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Response from Governor Hansen to Senator Gale McGee.
(WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

With the legislative session concluded, the only possibility was a special session, but it did not seem practical to do so.  Unlike his Washington colleagues, Hansen was not inspired by the amendment to take any further action.  

In the meantime, between January and March 1963, 29 states ratified the amendment.  Between March 1963 and January 1964, 9 additional states ratified the measure and it became officially adopted into the US Constitution.  Wyoming is one of 8 states, most in the South, that did not ratify the 24th amendment.  

Wyoming is one of only a handfull of states that did not ratify the 24th Amendment. (map from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:24th_amendment_ratification.svg)

Wyoming is one of only eight states that have never ratified the 24th Amendment.
(map from Wikimedia Commons)

To its credit, the Wyoming legislature was not totally oblivious.  From 1957 to 1963, several house members called for repealing the poll tax provision from the state constitution but the issue failed to get the support of the majority of the house members.  

Finally in 1967, both chambers agreed to endorse the idea, and the proposed constitutional change was strongly approved at the general election in November 1968.  The following year, the legislature repealed the poll tax statutes.

— Carl Hallberg, Reference Archivist

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Wyoming’s Civil War Legacy

150 years ago, before Wyoming was even a territory, the United States was in the middle of a bloody civil war. Even though Wyoming did not exist during the actual fight, the territory, and later state, felt the repercussions of the war for decades.

Did you know….

— Francis E. Warren, Wyoming’s last territorial governor, 1st state governor and 2nd state senator to congress, won the medal of honor for bravery at Port Hudson, Louisiana. (Of course you knew that. You just read his WyoWhiskers profile, right?)

(WSA Sub Neg 19423)

Sen. Francis E. Warren
(WSA Sub Neg 19423)

— On March 11, 1890, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature passed a law requiring public agencies to give preference to honorably discharged Union soldiers and sailors for public jobs. This law would still apply when Wyoming became a state that July.

Wyoming State Legislature House Chambers before the current chambers were completed in 1917.  (WSA Sub Neg 5712)

Wyoming State Legislature House Chambers before the current chambers were completed in 1917.
(WSA Sub Neg 5712)

— The 1890 Federal Census population schedule for Wyoming was lost to a fire, but the Veterans Schedule still exists. According to the 1890 statistics, 39,343 of Wyoming’s 60,705 in habitats were male. Of these, there were 1,171 Union Civil War veterans, 17 of whom were black, and 62 widows living in Wyoming in 1890. The census also counted 94 Confederate veterans and 8 widows. Wyoming’s Civil War veteran population was the 4th smallest in the nation. Only Arizona, Utah and Nevada claimed fewer. The state with the fewest Confederate veterans? Vermont with only 11. (Wyoming was 41st of 49 states and territories)

A page from the 1890 Veterans Schedule. This page includes Theodore Bath. Bath, a talented stone mason, built the stone houses called Bath Row in Laramie. The houses remaining on Bath Row are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

A page from the 1890 Veterans Schedule. These schedules includes information about  the veteran’s rank, unit and service.  (image from Ancestry.com)

— By 1910, between 25 and 30 percent of Wyoming’s population aged 65 and over was receiving a Civil War pension.

A group of Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) members (WSA Meyers Neg 174)

A group of Wyoming Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) members, photo by Joseph Shimitz.
(WSA Meyers Neg 174)

— Levi L. Davis enlisted with Company E, 11th Illinois Infantry on August 15, 1862 and was discharged on July 14, 1865 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.   After the war he married, had a family, and was a farmer in Union County, Illinois.  In the early 1900s, he moved to Buffalo, where he did odd jobs.  Davis was the last Civil War veteran admitted to Wyoming Soldiers and Sailors Home in Buffalo, Wyoming, in December 1930.  He was also the last Civil War veteran to die at the home on January 16, 1933. The Soldiers and Sailors Home is now called the Veteran’s Home of Wyoming.

Soldiers and Sailors Home in Buffalo, Wyoming, ca. 1930.  (WSA BCR Album)

Soldiers and Sailors Home in Buffalo, Wyoming, ca. 1930.
(WSA BCR Album)

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Happy Wyoming Day!

Since it became official in 1935, the State of Wyoming has celebrated Wyoming Day on December 10th. Why December 10th and not July 10th, the day we became a state? Well, because the ladies of the Wyoming Federation of Women’s Clubs requested it be celebrated in December. From 1917 until it became official in 1935, each state legislature passed a resolution proclaiming December 10th Wyoming Day.

December 10th holds a special place in the history of Wyoming and the nation because on that day in 1869, Territorial Governor John A. Campbell signed the bill known as the women’s suffrage act into law. This was the first legislation passed to insure women the right to vote in all state-wide elections and the right to hold public office. The law predated the 19th Amendment by 51 years.[1]

The original 1869 act, signed on December 10, 1869, granting the women of Wyoming the right to vote and hold public office.

The original 1869 act, signed on December 10, 1869, granting the women of Wyoming the right to vote and hold public office.

During the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889, the delegated debated whether and how suffrage should be included in the new state’s laws. During these debates, Melville C. Brown of Albany County, and president of the convention, provided the following summary of the history of suffrage in Wyoming:

“It has been said….that the proposition to give women the right to vote in Wyoming was originally presented in jest. I think the rumor is not well founded. It is well-known among the early residents of this territory that the then president, or presiding officer of one branch of the legislature, a Mr. Bright, of the county of Sweetwater, was an honorable and able advocate of the right of suffrage to women and of granting that right to women.[2]

William H. Bright, legislator from Carter (now Sweetwater) County and president of the Council, introduced the bill for women's suffrage to the 1869 Territorial Legislature. (WSA Sub Neg 1468)

William H. Bright, legislator from Carter (now Sweetwater) County and president of the Council, introduced the bill for women’s suffrage to the 1869 Territorial Legislature.
(WSA Sub Neg 1468)

When the legislature, the first in Wyoming, convened at the capitol, a lady of this city, Mrs. Esther Morris, presented a bill to Mr. Bright, asking the favorable action of the legislature upon that question.[3] The question was considered by the legislature, and whether or not there was some of its members who treated it as a matter of jest, I know not, but that measure was adopted in serious earnestness there is not doubt.

Esther Hobart Morris is credited with convincing William Bright, President of the first Wyoming Territorial Council, to introduce the woman's suffrage bill to the legislature. Morris would later become the first female Justice of the Peace in the nation. (WSA Sub Neg 2666)

Esther Hobart Morris is credited with convincing William Bright, President of the first Wyoming Territorial Council, to introduce the woman’s suffrage bill to the legislature. Morris would later become the first female Justice of the Peace in the nation.
(WSA Sub Neg 2666)

The second legislature of Wyoming convened at the capital and a bill was introduced by a member of that body to repeal the former bill. The question was seriously and earnestly considered in that legislature, and I know the temper of the men who then discussed it, because I was a member of that legislature, and question of woman’s suffrage in that legislature became a political question. It happened that it was presented by a Democrat, some feelings had arisen among the members of the convention and some hostility had grown up  amongst them against the executive of the territory at that time because of certain veto measures; growing out of this feeling the party lash was brought down, and after the bill repealing this law had been passed by a majority of the members of the legislature, the governor vetoed it. It came back for reconsideration and the veto of the governor was sustained, notwithstanding the fact that the party lash was brought down upon the backs of members of that convention who were Democratic in their opinion, and by reason of this party lash many of them were forced to vote against their convictions and give their support to the question of woman’s suffrage in Wyoming.[4]

Hon. Melville C. Brown, member of the 2nd Territorial Legislature and president of the 1889 Wyoming Constitutional Convention. (WSA Sub Neg 1489)

Hon. Melville C. Brown, member of the 2nd Territorial Legislature and president of the 1889 Wyoming Constitutional Convention.
(WSA Sub Neg 1489)

From that day to the present no man in the legislature of Wyoming has been heard to raise his voice against it. It has become one of the fundamental laws of the land, and to raise any question about it at this time is as improper in my judgment as to raise any question as to the fundamental right guaranteed to any citizen in this territory.[5] I would sooner think, Mr. Chairman, of submitting to the people of Wyoming a separate and distinct proposition as to whether a male citizen of the territory shall be entitled to vote. If we are at this time to discriminate between men and women as to this elective franchise let us put them upon the same common basis, and let us, if we are to vote as a people upon this question of suffrage, cover the whole ground and not a part of it.”[6]

________________

1. Technically, Wyoming’s women were not the first women in America to vote in a national election. Between 1797 and 1807, the women who owned property in New Jersey were allowed to vote, making them the first women to vote in a nationwide election. Women in other states were not specifically barred from voting by the Constitution, as voting requirements were left up to individual states. In 1807, national voting requirements were clarified to exclude slaves and aliens from voting, changing the language to specify white males over 21 years old. Because of the wording, women were also excluded. Apparently the women of New Jersey did not put up much resistance to the loss of their voting rights. Wyoming’s women were the first to be specifically guaranteed the right to vote and hold public office.

2. Bright was a Territorial Councilman and president of the first Territorial Council (similar to today’s Senate.) He represented Carter County, which was later renamed Sweetwater County.

3. In 1889, Esther Morris was living in Cheyenne as mentioned by Brown, but in 1869, she was a resident of South Pass City, the county seat of Carter County.

4. Interestingly enough, this outcome was correctly and precisely predicted by the Cheyenne Daily Leader which wrote on November 18, 1871: “The repeal of the act granting suffrage to females in Wyoming passed the House yesterday by a strict party vote, ten Democrats to three Republicans. Heretofore this question has not taken the position of a party measure, but now the Democracy are irrevocably recorded as against the measure, whatever merit or demerit may attach to it. The course of the bill is plain. The bill for the repeal having passed the House, we prognosticate as follows, concerning its fate: Its transmission to the Council and passage of the repeal by a vote of five to four; its veto by the Governor; passage over the veto in the House, and a failure in the Council to obtain the requisite two-thirds cote necessary to final passage. This is the probable fate of the present bill, thus leaving female suffrage an established fact in Wyoming.”

5. Native Americans were not granted suffrage until congress passed the Indian Citizen Act of 1924. But since they were not considered citizens of the United States until then, this statement was technically true in 1889.

6. Wyoming Constitutional Convention Proceedings and Debates, 1889, p 352-353.

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