Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The innovation of the primary election, beginning with Wisconsin in 1903, gave voters a more direct say in the selection of party candidates to stand for general election.

Summary of Event

In the United States, political parties’ nominees for public offices are selected through primary elections. Prior to Wisconsin’s adoption of the primary system in 1903, however, voters had no direct say in the parties’ nomination of candidates. Beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century, candidates for state and national offices in the United States were nominated at policy-making meetings, or caucuses, attended by members of their political parties. Eventually, due to abuses of the caucus system, the parties adopted nominating conventions as a means of choosing candidates, but this too came to be seen as an unsavory way to nominate candidates. Direct democracy Democracy;direct (U.S.) Primary elections Wisconsin, primary elections [kw]Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election Law (May 23, 1903) [kw]First Primary Election Law, Wisconsin Adopts the (May 23, 1903) [kw]Primary Election Law, Wisconsin Adopts the First (May 23, 1903) [kw]Election Law, Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary (May 23, 1903) [kw]Law, Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election (May 23, 1903) Direct democracy Democracy;direct (U.S.) Primary elections Wisconsin, primary elections [g]United States;May 23, 1903: Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election Law[00730] [c]Government and politics;May 23, 1903: Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election Law[00730] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 23, 1903: Wisconsin Adopts the First Primary Election Law[00730] La Follette, Robert M. McCarthy, Charles Philipp, Emanuel

Prompted by the perceived corruption and undemocratic nature of previous nomination systems, Wisconsin adopted the first statewide primary election law on May 23, 1903. The Wisconsin Progressives who supported the direct primary based their advocacy on the belief that nominating conventions invariably were ruled by political machines and party bosses. The primary was a direct assault on the power of the party bosses. The Wisconsin primary election law required a statewide direct election to nominate party candidates for all elective offices, with the exception of judges, the state superintendent of public instruction, and some minor local offices. The measure also required that the voting be done by secret ballot. It included no provision to allow the political parties to opt out of the primary.

An important feature of the 1903 legislation that created the Wisconsin primary was its requirement of open balloting. There was no test of party affiliation in the Wisconsin primary, meaning that voters could choose which party’s primary they would vote in on election day; this later came to be called an open primary. At the booth, the voter was to be handed the tickets of all parties and allowed to choose one on which to vote. This was originally one of the most criticized aspects of the primary law. Proponents argued that the advantage of the open primary was that it gave independent voters the right to cast their votes for the best candidate regardless of partisan affiliation. Opponents insisted that the open primary made it possible for one party’s members to sabotage a rival party by voting in its primary in sufficient numbers to nominate a weak candidate. Critics of the Wisconsin primary argued that the system would unduly undermine the strength of the political parties and lead to the election of incompetent candidates. The nonpartisan spirit prevalent in Wisconsin in the early 1900’s, however, encouraged adoption of the open primary, and this nomination system soon became very popular there.

Wisconsin’s adoption of the direct primary was a major political victory for Republican governor Robert M. La Follette. Follette had become a pariah in his party after he refused to take a bribe from another prominent Wisconsin Republican to influence a judge. La Follette campaigned for governor as a strong advocate of the direct primary, and after two losing attempts he finally won the office in the election of 1900. Once he took office in 1901, La Follette advocated an ambitious number of progressive reforms, including tax reform, corporate regulation, and steeper railroad taxes, as well as the institution of a direct primary. As governor, La Follette developed what became know as the “Wisconsin Idea,” Wisconsin Idea in which the state involved professors from the University of Wisconsin in the drafting of bills and the administration of the state regulatory apparatus created by the new laws. The Progressives who favored the direct primary linked themselves with the University of Wisconsin.

One of the persons who was hired as part of the Wisconsin Idea was a political scientist named Charles McCarthy, who ended up playing a key role in the implementation of the Wisconsin primary. In his capacity as director of the nation’s first official legislative reference library in Madison, Wisconsin, McCarthy operated behind the political scenes to help devise the Wisconsin primary system, and he was one of the system’s strongest supporters once it was in place. McCarthy has been called the most important Wisconsin Progressive after La Follette.

The Wisconsin primary was adopted despite strong political opposition. The leader of the anti-Progressive forces against the direct primary was Emanuel Philipp, who later became governor of Wisconsin (1915-1921). Philipp, like La Follette, was a Republican, but he represented the anti-Progressive Old Guard wing of the party, which was very hostile to La Follette’s reforms, including the direct primary. La Follette singled Philipp out as a corrupt businessman who opposed the direct primary because he was too close to the railroad and brewing industries. It is important to note, however, that despite his strong opposition to the direct primary when it took effect in 1903, Philipp did not attempt to abolish the primary when he became governor a decade later. He would have found such a move difficult, as by then the primary had become very popular with Wisconsin voters.


After Wisconsin adopted the direct primary in 1903, the primary election movement spread rapidly, and by the end of World War I in 1918, all but four U.S. states had instituted the use of primary elections for some or all statewide nominations. Today, Americans take primary elections for granted. Except for in a few southern states, where primaries are optional, primaries are now the required method of choosing the nominees for all state and local offices in the United States. It is worth noting, however, that the primary system has not caught on outside American borders; the legally regulated primary system remains peculiar to the United States.

The biggest impact of the primary system has been that it has weakened the power of party bosses and thus the political parties in general. In the nineteenth century, in order to get a party’s nomination an individual had to have the support of the party establishment. Since the advent of the primary, however, a candidate can win a party’s nomination by appealing directly to the voters even if the candidate has no support from the party establishment. A person can place his or her name on a primary ballot by making a simple declaration of candidacy, by obtaining a nomination at a preprimary convention, or by gathering a particular number of voters’ signatures on a petition. Some experts have argued that this has had the unintended consequence of increasing the role of special interests as party strength and discipline have declined.

The primary system has also played an important role in national politics through its influence on presidential nominations. Today, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party hold series of presidential primaries and caucuses in all fifty states. As a result, the nomination process for the office of president is very open, and nonestablishment candidates can potentially win a party’s nomination. Direct democracy Democracy;direct (U.S.) Primary elections Wisconsin, primary elections

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buenker, John D., and William Fletcher Thompson. History of Wisconsin: The Progressive Era, 1893-1914. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1998. An account of Progressive Era reforms, including the direct primary, that made Wisconsin known nationally as a “laboratory of democracy.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarthy, Charles. The Wisconsin Idea. New York: Macmillan, 1912. A glowing account of the Progressive movement in Wisconsin from the perspective of the head of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGerr, Michael E. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Argues that the ambitious battles fought by Progressive reformers such as La Follette changed the face of American politics and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Margulies, Herbert F. The Decline of the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890-1920. Madison: Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1968. Analyzes the rise and fall of the Wisconsin Progressive movement. Asserts that La Follette’s abilities as a director were responsible for Wisconsin’s reputation as the pioneer Progressive state and a showcase for the Progressive movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Philipp, Emanuel. Political Reform in Wisconsin. Milwaukee: E. L. Philipp, 1910. Account of the politics behind the adoption of the primary as well as the adoption of taxation reform and railway regulation in Wisconsin from the perspective of an anti-Progressive leader.

Expansion of Direct Democracy

Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona Become U.S. States

Republican Congressional Insurgency

Wilson Is Elected U.S. President

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

Republican Resurgence Ends America’s Progressive Era

Categories: History