All experience teaches that first attempts at legislation in a new field, where precedents are wanting and the framers of the proposed statute have only their desire to improve conditions and their native wit to guide them, usually fall far short of perfection. There have been few men in the history of the race who could draft a legislative act that would answer the purpose desired without subsequent changes. Even when the matter under consideration is one that has been mulled over many thes before, it is the rule that many an i must be dotted and many a t crossed before the last word is said on the subject.
This was the case with the Keogh law. It was a crude effort at best, and the result of its trial was that the first bill introduced in the assembly in 1893 was for its repeal. This bill was No. 1A, and it was speedily passed and became chapter 7, laws of 1893.
But the reform effort did not stop here. Milwaukee political leaders and business men were not satisfied to go back to the old system. A new bill was introduced in the senate by Michael Kruszka, who had been promoted to that body by his constituents. This bill was numbered 144S, and upon its passage and publication it became chapter 249, laws of 1893, and was called the Kruszka law. Gov. George W. Peck’s name appears on the original bill on file in Madison.
In this statute, which, like its predecessor, applied only to Milwaukee county, some progress was attained and conventions and delegates were specifically recognized. Provision was made for the organization of township, ward and county committees; for the holding of township and ward caucuses at which local officers were to be nominated and delegates elected to district, city and county conventions; primaries were to be conducted like elections, to be in charge of officers appointed by the committees, and votes were to be canvassed and returns made as in the case of regular elections. Only qualified electors were permitted to participate in these caucuses and penalties were prescribed for all fraudulent voting or attempts to commit fraud.
This bill was also referred to the Milwaukee delegation, which assumed all responsibility for it, and a new law thus came into being and was given a trial in the subsequent campaigns.
When the the came to test the law of 1893 the secretary of the Milwaukee republican county committee, Dr. W. A. Fricke, who was a stickler for order and method and a believer in perfect party organization, found that his work was cut out for him if he was to comply with all its provisions. Not having been built up and fitted together piece by piece as the result of mature experience and educated statecraft, it was found that the act was equally as valuable as an indication of what should be done and what avoided in framing a new law as it was as a statute for the regulation of the primaries. The republicans of Milwaukee county had, as the result of an attempt to comply with the Keogh law of 1891, completed a county organization that was the most perfect of any that had been in existence up to that time. In 1893 the committee had reorganized under the Kruszka law and was in still better shape. Now, in order to comply with the new law as far as possible, forms and blanks were prepared by the secretary and an effort made to follow out in detail every provision made for the government of the primaries. This was found to be a difficult problem and it never was satisfactorily solved.
But the experience gained at the spring election in 1894 was worth all the trouble and money it cost, as it enabled the committee to adopt a set of regulations for use at the primaries in the fall of that year that proved to be of value when the the came to frame a third experimental law in the winter of 1895.
The history of bill number 329S, 1895, is an interesting one. The republican party had once more elected a majority of the two houses of the legislature and Gov. William H. Upham presided in the executive chamber. Senator Kruszka, still in the senate and still interested in caucus reforms, felt that it would be better to have the new bill drawn by him introduced by a member of the dominant party. In this emergency Senator Thomas B. Mills of Superior was appealed to for help and he introduced the measure and championed it, although it still remained a local Milwaukee bill. It was referred to the committee on privileges and elections on Feb. 12 and slumbered in the committee box until April 4.
Meanwhile there had been many conferences on the subject between interested parties, as others besides the original promoters of the movement had become interested. Dr. Fricke, in particular, representing the Milwaukee county republican committee, was active in these conferences. The forms and blanks used at the spring caucuses of the republican party and the carefully prepared regulations drawn up for use in the autumn of that year were brought into the conferences. The result was a substitute bill that more nearly attained the object sought than any previous effort had done as it represented the best thought of leading men in and out of politics in the state at that the. This substitute was reported by the committee, passed both houses, was signed by Gov. Upham, and became chapter 288, laws of 1895.
By this act caucuses were defined and directions given for holding all such meetings under the provisions of this statute; all other gatherings for the purpose of nominating candidates for office or electing delegates to conventions were declared illegal and forbidden. Only qualified electors of the party holding the caucus were entitled to vote, and punishment was prescribed for all who voted or attempted to vote unlawfully. The mode of electing county committeemen was prescribed and the duties of those bodies were defined. Caucuses were to be held in regular election booths to be kept open in city wards from 4 to 9 o’clock p. m., and in towns and villages from 3 to 6 o’clock p. m. County committees were to appoint annually on the first of February three electors in each ward, township, and village, to act as inspectors. Caucuses were not to be held more than two days before the conventions at which the delegates to be elected were to serve. All local officers were to be nominated by a direct vote by ballot at the caucuses and votes were to be canvassed and returns made as at elections. The penal statutes applying to all elections were made a part of the law.
One of the important features of this act was the provision made for placing candidates before the primary, a matter that has caused considerable controversy since the primary law now in force went into effect. The expense incidental to the circulation of nominating papers and much of the labor and cost of ante-primary campaigns were avoided by holding a preliminary meeting at which names were suggested to be voted for at the regular primary. These preliminary meetings were called by the county committee and were held four days before the date set for the caucus. The meetings were regularly called to order by the local inspectors, a clerk was elected, and any qualified elector could be placed in nomination by the mere suggestion of his name. The clerk of the meeting made a record of the names suggested in the order in which they were presented and certified the list to the county committee, which body prepared tickets for the primaries. No other ticket could be used at the caucuses and the voter was required to mark out all the names of candidates for whom he did not want to vote. The board of registration was directed to furnish a list of registered voters to all inspectors of primaries, and voters whose names did not appear on those lists were required to swear in their votes.
As this law applied also to Milwaukee county only, the support that secured its enactment came mainly from that county. By this the, however, there were leaders in other sections of the state who were becoming interested in the movement. They had watched developments in the Milwaukee primaries and were preparing to take steps to enlarge the scope of any workable law that gave promise of assuring clean primaries and a full and free expression of the will of a majority of the party voters at such meetings.1
When the legislature of 1897 met at Madison the people of Milwaukee county had made two trials of the new primary law and they were pleased with it. Not only were the citizens of the metropolis of the state, where the greatest need of primary regulation had been felt, content to continue working under the new system, but leading men of other sections who had taken occasion to observe the operations of the plan were convinced that it was a substantial, workable reform, and were in favor of extending the advantages it afforded to other cities.
For the reasons given a new bill was prepared and introduced, making such minor changes in the statute as experience dictated and providing for extending it, to
all caucuses and meetings of political parties held for the purpose of nominating candidates, or choosing delegates to assemble in convention to nominate any person for public office, to be voted for at any general or municipal election held in all the cities in this state, except as hereinafter provided.The exception mentioned was placed at the end of the first section and reads as follows:
The provisions of this chapter shall not apply to municipal elections held in cities of the third and fourth class until such cities have adopted the same, as provided in section 11 of this act.Section 11 explained how the question of the adoption of the plan for making nominations by ballot at primaries was to be submittcd to a popular vote in cities of the third and fourth class.
The principal amendments made in 1897 to the law as it then existed, and as it applied to Milwaukee county were: (a) The hours during which the caucuses were to be kept open in city wards were from 12 m. to 8 p. m. (b) At preliminary meetings the names of persons suggested as candidates to be voted for at the primaries were to be written on slips of paper and deposited in a box. After nominations had closed, the names were to be withdrawn from the box and placed on a list by the secretary in the order in which they were drawn. In that order they were to be printed on the official ballots.
This measure, which was senate bill No. 58, was introduced by Senator Thomas B. Mills of Superior, and met with little or no opposition in either house, so unanimous was the senthent in favor of the effort then being made to find a way by which the initial, or fundamental, meetings of party members could be made as free from objectionable features as possible, thereby encouraging a full attendance and an untrammeled expression of opinion in the selection of party candidates.
Up to this the the men who subsequently became known as primary election reformers had taken no hand in the work of framing the laws to better conditions. The movement had been an evolutionary one, pure and simple, and a majority of the leaders whose pushful energy and persistent determnation had carried it to its then stage of developimment would not be called politicians, if a strict classification were to he attempted. Many who aided them were plain business men who had been sent to the legislature, not because they were reformers, but because they were believed to be men whose brains were capable of doing good, plain thinking. Also, there were business and professional men who held no official positions who gave the movement their moral support.
The final step in the primary evolutionary movement was the passage of assembly bill No. 126, introduced by Louis A. Lange, a Fond du Lac democratic newspaper publisher, which was approved by Gov. Edward Scofield May 3, 1899, and became chapter 341 of the laws of that year. Up to this point there had been steady, substantial progress from year to year, progress dictated by sound judgment and marked by experiments in every campaign. It was a far cry from the Keogh law of 1891 to the Lange bill of 1899. Important were the changes that had been miade, but the movement had been evolutionary in its character from beginning to end.
The law of 1899 extended the operation of the Milwaukee law to the entire state so far as it was believed to be wise at the time. It was made to apply, in a modified form, to all towns, cities and villages. It was essentially an experiment, the purpose being to discover how a law, originally framed to meet the demands of a city where congested wards were to be found and where the voting population of any ward was as numerous as that of an ordinary city in the interior of the state, would work in the rural districts and villages. It had been successfully tried in many of the cities of the second, third and fourth class. The question was, would the rural communities take kindly to it and would it prove beneficial in such places?
No reasonable man can doubt for an instant that, had this movement been permitted to continue, there would have been steady but gradual improvement in the primary laws until approximate perfection would have been attained in statutes that could be made to work smoothly and justly, because they would have been based on ripe experience—-as were the statutes already in force. But this was not to be. Already the revolutionary movement had been foreshadowed by the introduction of a sweeping direct primary election bill in 1897 by Assemblyman William T. Lewis of Racine, in public addresses by Robert M. La Follette, a tentative bill prepared for publication and publicly circulated by Hon. L. J. Nash of Manitowoc, and a bill introduced in the assembly by Gen. George E. Bryant in 1899 as a suggestion of what Mr. La Follette then advocated. In other states the sentiment in favor of a more radical reform measure was spreading. Meetings of reformers were held, states were falling into line, the Outlook Magazine, edited then as now by the Rev. Lyman Abbott, was conducting an energetic campaign, and the demand was becoming general that all conventions for the nomination of candidates for public office be abolished by law. California, Oregon, Minnesota, and Illinois had each adopted or were about to adopt the direct primary system. There was a strong sentiment in New York in favor of the same plan and in other states the campaign was progressing satisfactorily—-from the viewpoint of the reformers.
No specific complaints have ever been registered against the law of 1899. Under that law Robert M. La Folette was nominated for governor of Wisconsin by the republican party in 1900. The story of the revolution that followed is entitled to treatment by itself.
1. The members of the Milwaukee delegation in the legislature in 1895 were:
James 0. Officer, William H. Austin and Charles T. Fisher, republicans;
Oscar Altpeter and Michael Kruszka, democrats.
In the assembly:
First district—H. S. Dodge (R).
Second district—George R. Mahoney (D).
Third district—G. J. Jeske (R).
Fourth district—Frank Anson (R).
Fifth district—Albert Waller (R).
Sixth district—R. Klabunde (R).
Seventh district—Edward C. Notbohm (R).
Eighth district—E. B. Stillman (R).
Ninth district—C. Winter (R).
Tenth district—Theodore Prochnow (R).
Eleventh district—Chris. Paulus (R).
Twelfth district—Andrew Bonsel (D)
Thirteenth district—B. A. Eaton (R).
Fourteenth district—E. D. Hoyt (R).