Today when non-citizens vote they face harsh penalties, but in the early years of the Republic, newly minted states commonly allowed alien inhabitants to vote in local, state, and federal elections. After the War of 1812, the practice of alien voting slowed somewhat, but grew again in the mid-nineteenth century as states increasingly followed Wisconsin's lead in allowing “declarant aliens” to vote.
Until 1952, the law required non-citizens seeking eventual naturalization to file “first papers,” indicating an intention to naturalize. This declaration of intent could be made at any point after arrival, did not deprive the non-citizen of his original nationality, did not legally obligate him to complete the process of becoming a citizen, and did not even require an oath of allegiance to the United States. Nonetheless, it became increasingly common during the nineteenth century for states to allow declarant aliens to vote. The alien suffrage movement accelerated after the Civil War, when many states granted declarant aliens who had fought in the Civil War the right to vote. By World War I, however, a rapid decline had begun, and by 1926 all states had outlawed alien suffrage.