Trading Statehood for Votes: The Early Decline of the Democratic Party in the Idaho

Since I recently moved to Boise, I decided to learn more about the political history of Idaho. I discovered that there are several cases in the formation the Idaho political system that are relevant to the study of Comparative, American, and state politics today, and so I am going to devote a few blog posts to some interesting aspects of Idaho history. In this first blog post, I discuss the early rise and decline of the Democratic Party in Idaho.

Today Idaho is one of the most Republican states in the country. It has the second largest percentage of Republicans in a state legislature. In addition, since 1968, 11 out of the 14 House of Representatives members have been Republican and all but one of the US Senators have been Republican. Idaho has also consistently voted for a Republican Presidential candidate since 1968.

Although Idaho is currently a Republican stronghold, it did not start out that way. The Democratic Party had a strong presence in the original Idaho territory. This was in part due to the small but significant Mormon minority in the state voting in bloc for the party (yes, Mormons were mostly Democrats in the late 19th century). However, as I discuss in more detail below, in order to receive statehood, members of the Democratic party in Idaho (as well as members of the Republican party) had to distance themselves from Mormons in order to convince Congress to grant them statehood (as Congress was anti-Mormon at the time). The original Idaho state constitution, which Congress had to approve, prohibited Mormons from voting. Essentially the Democratic Party had to choose between catering to a loyal and significant voting bloc in their party and statehood. The Democratic Party chose statehood.

Why Statehood?

In Territorial Governor George Stoup’s call for the Idaho Constitutional
in 1889, he made it clear that there were several significant political and financial benefits for Idaho becoming a state. With respect to political representation, if Idaho became a state, residents could vote in Presidential and Vice Presidential elections. They would also have at least one House Representative and two Senators. While they had a territorial representative to Congress, the representative could not vote.

Concerning local politics, residents of the Idaho territory were also not able to select their governor, nor were they able to select their judges. The President appointed individuals to fill these posts. If Idaho became a state residents would have more control over who represented them in local politics.

Also, perhaps more importantly, there were several financial benefits for statehood. According to Governor Stoup’s estimates, the Treasury only gave Idaho $28,000 a year to run the territorial government. However, if Idaho were a state, Congress would contribute about $3.5 million a year to the state (with a large portion of those resources being allocated to the establishment of a public education system in the state). Furthermore, due to the Alien Land Act of 1887, foreign investors could not own or lease real estate in territories controlled by Congress. If Idaho became a state, they would be in a better position to attract foreign investment, especially in the mining regions of the state (mining was an extremely important sector of Idaho’s economy). And last, if Idaho
became a state, the legislature could sell or lease public land, which would have brought in a great deal of revenue.

Requirements for Statehood

One of the major obstacles to Idaho statehood was the small but significant Mormon population in the region. They made about 17% of the territory’s population in the 1880s and were mostly located in the south and eastern portions of the territory. Representatives from Congress who spoke at the Idaho Constitutional Convention in 1889 made it very clear that the “Mormon question” was the largest obstacle for Idaho to overcome to gain statehood. Below is an excerpt from one Congressperson’s speech at the Convention:

Mr. Burrows: “But allow me to say, gentlemen, that the most serious obstacle to my mind in the way of your admission into the Union, is not the question of irrigation, it is not the question that concerns your material affairs in the territory, but the most serious obstacle lying in the pathway of your admission into the Union is the question of Mormonism… Now your constitution will be very carefully scanned upon that question.”

So why was Congress at odds with the Mormon church? Congress saw the Mormon church as a threat to the Federal government. Mormons were very loyal to their church leaders. This was in part due to the history of the church itself. Mormons ended up in the west to escape religious prosecution in the east. They lived in isolation for many years, and this forced them to establish their own cities and towns with their own economic and political systems. It was almost as if they had built their own small country in the west, where religion, economics, and politics intertwined. Given the relationship between religion and politics, members of Congress believed that Mormons were loyal to their leaders in almost a similar fashion to how Americans were loyal to Congress or the President. Another excerpt from the Convention:

Mr. Burrows: “Now gentlemen, no organization, whether religious or secular, no body of people in this country can dominate, either in the state or in the nation that acknowledges a higher power than the power of the government in civil affairs…”

Congress took the Mormon “threat” so seriously that they passed the Edmunds Act in 1882. The act essentially stripped Mormons of the right to vote. It also prohibited Mormons from serving on juries and prohibited them from holding public office. By the time of the 1889 Constitutional Convention, it was clear that if Idaho wanted statehood, they would have to repress their Mormon population.

Disenfranchisement Prior to the Constitutional Convention

Mormon political repression in the Idaho territory began a few years before the push for statehood, in the mid-1870s. Up until this time, Mormons were actively involved in territorial politics. They tended to vote in bloc for the Democratic Party, which meant the party did quite well in territorial elections.

Eventually the Republican Party in the Idaho territory realized that they could increase their vote share if they used the Democratic Party’s affiliation with Mormons against them. An anti-Mormon arm of the Republican Party started in the territory, primarily in Oneida County, in the 1870s. The anti-Mormons mainly argued that Mormons should not be able to participate in politics because of their support of polygamous marriages (even though less than 1% of Mormons in Idaho actually engaged in polygamy). The campaign was so successful that anti-Mormons gained control over the territorial legislature in 1884. And in order to re-enforce Mormon repression, they passed the Test Oath.

The Test Oath of 1884 prohibited Mormons in Idaho from voting, holding political office, and serving on juries. The early effects of the Edmunds Act and the Test Oath on the Democratic vote share were drastic. Democrats almost continuously sent a territorial representative to Congress for 18 years (see the chart below). Not only did the Republican Party start winning these elections, by the time of the 1889 Convention, they were so strong that they actually made up the majority of the representatives at the Constitutional Convention.

Non-Mormon Democrats quickly recognized that the Republican’s anti-Mormon strategy was working, as they were losing control over territorial politics. They began to regard their Mormon co-partisans as a serious liability. An anti-Mormon faction formed in the Democratic Party and they made it very clear that they wanted to distance themselves from their Mormon co-partisans.

Disenfranchisement during the Convention

Anti-Mormon sentiment in Idaho continued during the Constitutional Convention. Members of both parties wanted to make it abundantly clear that they did not support the Mormon church.  Several Democrats gave several speeches about Mormons, trying to distance themselves as far from them as possible. As one Democrat representative stated:

“… the conservative element in that caucus … wanted to show to this territory, to show to the good people that we would go far beyond even our conscientious scruples to put down Mormonism, to show to this territory that we stood side by side with the republicans.”

In order to eliminate the Mormon vote in Idaho permanently, representatives in the convention carefully worded Article 6, sections 3 and 4 of the Constitution in order to disenfranchise Mormons. They wanted to make sure that the language was clear enough that Mormons could not find a loophole to get around disenfranchisement. But they also wanted to make sure that the state legislature could not take the right to vote away from any other religious or civic organization.

The final language of Article 6, sections 3 and 4, read as follows:

“Sec. 3. No person is permitted to vote, serve as a juror, or hold any civil office who… is a bigamist or polygamist, or is living in what is known as a patriarchal, plural or celestial marriage, or in violation of any law of this state, or of the United States, forbiding any such crime; or who in any manner, teaches, advises, counsels, aids or encourages any person to enter into bigamy, polygamy, or such patriarchal, plural or celestial marriage, or to live in violation of any such law, or to commit any such crime; or who is a member of, or contributes to the support, aid, or encouragement of, any order, organization, association,
corporation, or society, which teaches, advises, counsels, encourages or aids
any per son to enter into bigamy, polygamy or such patriarchal or plural
marriage, or which teaches or advises that the laws of this state prescribing
rules of civil conduct, are not the supreme law of the state; …

Sec. 4. The legislature may prescribe qualifications, limitations and conditions for the right of suffrage, additional to those prescribed in this article, but shall never annul any of the provisions in this article contained.”

Timing, Another Factor

Since there were clearly significant political and financial benefits for Idaho residents if the Federal government granted them statehood, it is not too surprising that Democrats were willing to disenfranchise their Mormon supporters in exchange for statehood. However, I also think that the short time frame in which Idaho had to petition for statehood also played in role in forcing the Democrats to make concessions. If the Federal government had not granted them statehood in 1889, they believed they would have had to wait years for another opportunity.

So why was there a quick time frame? In order for Idaho to become a state, it had to prove it had enough residents to justify statehood. The territory had to meet the population requirements of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was “60,000 residents.” It also had to have enough residents to justify a House member representing the state. According to the 1880 Census, there were only 32,610 residents in Idaho, which was far less than the 60,000 required. Unless the population in the state almost doubled by 1890, it would have been impossible to gain statehood.

Since it was clear that the Idaho territory might have not had enough residents to justify statehood, representatives from Idaho started exaggerating about how many residents lived in the territory. In the late 1880s, Stoup claimed they were 113,777 residents in the state, almost four times the 1880 Census count.

In order to prevent Congress from having a more accurate idea of what the population of the Idaho territory was, Idaho needed to petition for statehood prior to 1890, the year of the next Census. They waited until 1889 to draft a state constitution and present it to Congress. Since there was such a short time frame, it may have forced Democrats to make serious compromises in exchange for statehood. Had they had a longer time frame they could have had more time to make the argument that Mormons were not a threat to
the Federal or state government.

Statehood, Enfranchisement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party

On July 3, 1890, Idaho officially became a state. It became one of the few states in the US to include a religious requirement for suffrage in its constitution. Nevertheless, Mormon disenfranchisement did not last long. The state repealed the Test Oath in 1892. And the constitution was not used to prevent Mormons from voting. Still, it was not until 1982 that Idaho formally changed its constitution to remove the anti-Mormon language.

Even though Mormons quickly regained their right to vote, the Democratic Party never regained the dominance it had in the mid-1800s. The Republicans and Democrats basically shared power for about the first 80 years, until the 1960s. And then Republicans dominated elections thereafter.

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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