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Suffrage

Related subjects Animal & Human Rights; UK Politics & government

Suffrage (from the Latin suffragium, meaning "vote") is the civil right to vote, or the exercise of that right. In that context, it is also called political franchise or simply the franchise, a term dating from the time when the Franks of ancient France were free.

Historically, many groups have been excluded from the right to vote, on various grounds, because their members were subjects of feudal kings or princes or otherwise not free humans. Sometimes this exclusion was an explicit policy, clearly stated in the electoral laws; at other times it was implemented in practice by provisions that may seem to have little to do with the exclusion actually being implemented (e.g. poll taxes and literacy requirements used to keep emancipated slaves in the pre- Civil Rights Era American South from voting). In other cases, a group has been permitted to vote, but the electoral system or institutions of government gave their votes less influence than those of other groups.

The legitimacy of democratic government is usually considered to derive primarily from universal suffrage.

Types of suffrage

Universal suffrage

Universal suffrage is the term used to describe a situation in which the right to vote is not restricted by race, sex, belief or social status. It typically does not extend a right to vote to all citizens or residents of a region. Distinctions are frequently made in regard to nationality, age, and occasionally mental capacity or criminal convictions.

New Zealand was the first country to grant limited universal suffrage in 1893. Finland was the first European country to grant universal suffrage to its citizens in 1906, and the first country to make every citizen eligible to run for parliament.

Women's suffrage

Women's suffrage is the right of women to vote, usually on the same terms as men. This was the goal of the suffragists and the " Suffragettes". In many western democracies it was a major Liberal and Democratic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first country to give women the vote in national elections was New Zealand in 1893, although various states and territories in Australia and the United States had given women the vote in local elections prior to this.

Manhood suffrage

Manhood suffrage is the right of adult men of all classes, races and religions to vote unless disqualified by mental illness or criminal conviction.

Equal suffrage

Equal suffrage is a term sometimes confused with Universal suffrage, although its meaning is the removal of graded votes, where a voter could possess a number of votes in accordance with income, wealth or social status, so that everyone's vote is equal.

Census suffrage

Census suffrage is the opposite of Equal suffrage, meaning that the votes cast by those eligible to vote are not equal, but are weighed differently according to the persons rank in the census (e.g., people with high income have more votes than those with a small income). The suffrage may therefore be limited, usually to the propertied classes, but can still be universal, including, for instance, women or black people, if they meet the census.

Compulsory suffrage

Compulsory suffrage is a system where those who are eligible to vote are required by law to do so. Australia is an example of a country practicing this form of suffrage.

Forms of exclusion from suffrage

Religion

In the aftermath of the Reformation it was common in European countries for people of particular religions or religious denominations to be denied certain civil and political rights, often including the right to vote, stand for election or sit in parliament. An example of this is that in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Roman Catholics were denied the right to vote until 1788, and the right to sit in parliament until 1829. The anti-Catholic policy was justified on the grounds that the loyalty of Catholics supposedly lay with the Pope rather than the national monarch.

Social class

Up until the nineteenth century, many Western democracies had property qualifications in their electoral laws, that generally meant that only people who owned land could vote. Today, those laws have largely been abolished. However, in some countries the practice still applies, although perhaps unintentionally, as most democratic countries require an address for the electors to be qualified to vote. In practice, this may exclude many who have not the means to own or rent living quarters, such as the homeless. Many countries also discriminate on the basis of criminal or psychiatric record (see below), which are very strongly correlated with class and race.

Race

Various countries, usually with large non-white populations, have historically denied the vote to people of particular races or to non-whites in general. This has been achieved in a number of ways:

  • Official - laws and regulations passed specifically disenfranchising people of particular races (for example, indigenous Australians until 1967, and South Africa under apartheid).
  • Indirect - nothing in law specifically prevents anyone from voting on account of their race, but other laws or regulations are used to exclude people of a particular race. One example of this is that in some southern American states before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, literacy and other tests were used to disenfranchise African-Americans. In various places property qualifications have tended to disenfranchise non-whites, particularly if tribally-owned land is not allowed to be taken into consideration. In some cases (such as early colonial New Zealand) property qualifications were deliberately used to disenfranchise non-whites; in other cases this was an unintended (but not usually unwelcome) consequence.
  • Unofficial - nothing in law prevents anyone from voting on account of their race, but people of particular races are intimidated or otherwise prevented from exercising this right.

Age

Despite the best of universal suffrage, all modern democracies require voters to meet age qualifications to vote and deny the right to vote to individuals below the voting age. Often overlooked, young people under the voting age make up 20-50% of the population in some countries, and have no political representation. Worldwide voting ages are not consistent, fluctuating between countries and indeed within countries, usually between 15 (currently only in Iran) and 21.

In all democratic countries, young people are excluded from voting in local and national elections, though the voting age is set generally at 18. The option of qualifying by 'rite of passage' tests to certify a person's competence to vote responsibly is yet to be widely debated. One analogy is this: the 'right' to drive a motor vehicle is taken for granted, but few advocate that people of any age should be free to drive motor vehicles on public roads without first demonstrating practical skills and theoretical knowledge.

There have been proposals to lower the national voting age to 16 in the United Kingdom, one of the arguments for which being that, as people of 16 can marry, smoke, join the Army and pay taxes, for example, they should be allowed a say in the country's running. A similar argument supported the passage of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1971, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The argument stated that 18-year-olds were subject to the military (Vietnam-era) draft and that if one was expected to possibly die for one's country then one should certainly be permitted to help choose its leader.

Prisoners and felons

Many countries have disenfranchisement of sentenced prisoners. In the United States, voting privileges are denied to prisoners by some states, but several other countries (including most countries of the European Union) allow all prisoners to vote, regardless of time served and nature of the crime. Some countries, such as Canada, allowed only prisoners serving a term of less than 2 years the right to vote. However in Canada, this restriction was found unconstitutional in 2002 by the Supreme Court of Canada in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), and as a result, all prisoners were allowed to vote as of the 2004 Canadian Election. Some countries, and some U.S. states, also deny the right to vote to those convicted of serious crimes after they are released from prison. In some cases (e.g. the felony disenfranchisement laws found in many U.S. states) the denial of the right to vote is automatic on a felony conviction; in other cases (e.g. provisions found in many parts of continental Europe) the denial of the right to vote is an additional penalty that the court can choose to impose, over and above the penalty of imprisonment, such as in France or Germany. In the Republic of Ireland, prisoners are not specifically denied the right to vote, but are also not provided access to a ballot station, so are effectively disenfranchised. Another exemption from the right to vote is made by some countries for people in psychiatric facilities. In the United Kingdom, peers who are members of the House of Lords (all up until reforms in 1999) are also excluded from voting in general elections.

District of Columbia

Residents of Washington DC have been excluded, in whole or in part, from voting since Congress took over the District of Columbia in 1801. Under the argument that residents of the District would exert undue influence over the government, the Congress, under the power asserted for it in the Constitution to legislate "in all cases whatsoever" over the District, has denied US citizens the right to vote and be represented, and to control their own local affairs, for the past 200 years (since 1801).

History of Suffrage around the world

History of suffrage in New Zealand

  • 1853 - British government passes the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, granting limited self rule, including a bicameral parliament to the colony. The vote was limited to male British subjects aged 21 or over who owned or rented sufficient property, and were not imprisoned for a serious offence. Communally owned land was excluded from the property qualification, thus disenfranchising most Māori (indigenous) men.
  • 1860 - Franchise extended to holders of miner's licenses who met all voting qualifications except that of property.
  • 1867 - Māori seats established, giving Mãori four reserved seats in the lower house. There was no property qualification; thus Mãori men gained universal suffrage before any other group of New Zealanders. However the number of seats did not reflect the size of the Māori population.
  • 1879 - Property requirement abolished.
  • 1893 - Women given equal voting rights with men.
  • 1969 - Voting age lowered to 20.
  • 1974 - Voting age lowered to 18.
  • 1975 - Franchise extended to permanent residents of New Zealand, regardless of whether they have citizenship.
  • 1996 - Number of Māori seats increased to reflect Māori population.

History of suffrage in the United Kingdom

Suffrage in the United Kingdom was slowly changed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries to allow universal suffrage through the use of the Reform Acts and the Representation of the People Acts.

  • Reform Act 1832 - extended voting rights to adult males who rented propertied land of a certain value, so allowing 1 in 7 males in the UK voting rights
  • Reform Act 1867 - enfranchised all male householders, so increasing male suffrage to the United Kingdom
  • Representation of the People Act 1884 - amended the Reform Act of 1867 so that it would apply equally to the countryside; this brought the voting population to 5,500,000, although 40% of males were still disenfranchised, whilst women could not vote
  • Between 1885-1918 moves were made by the suffragette movement to ensure votes for women. However the duration of the First World War stopped this reform movement. See also The Parliamentary Franchise in the United Kingdom 1885-1918.
  • Representation of the People Act 1918 - the consequences of World War I convinced the government to expand the right to vote, not only for the many men who fought in the war who were disenfranchised, but also for the women who helped in the factories and elsewhere as part of the war effort. Property restrictions for voting were lifted for men, who could vote at 21; however women's votes were given with these property restriction, and were limited to those over 30 years old. This raised the electorate from 7.7 million to 21.4 million with women making up 40% of the electorate. 7% of the electorate had more than one vote. The first election with this system was the United Kingdom general election, 1918
  • Representation of the People Act 1928 - this made women's voting rights equal with men, with voting possible at 21 with no property restrictions
  • Representation of the People Act 1948 - the act was passed to prevent plural voting
  • Representation of the People Act 1969 - extension of suffrage to those over 18
  • The Representation of the People Acts of 1983, 1985 and 2000 further modified voting
  • Electoral Administration Act 2006 - modified the ways in which people were able to vote and reduced the age of standing at a public election from 21 to 18.

History of suffrage in the United States

In the United States, suffrage is determined by the separate states, not federally. There is no national "right to vote". The states and the people have changed the U.S. Constitution five times to disallow states from limiting suffrage, thereby expanding it.

  • 15th Amendment (1870): no law may restrict any race from voting
  • 19th Amendment (1920): no law may restrict any sex from voting
  • 23rd Amendment (1961): residents of the District of Columbia can vote for the President and Vice-President
  • 24th Amendment (1964): neither Congress nor the states may condition the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other type of tax
  • 26th Amendment (1971): no law may restrict those above 18 years of age from voting because of their age

Suffrage today

Today, in most democracies, the ability to vote is granted as a birth right, without discrimination with regard to race, ethnicity, class or gender. Without any qualifying test (such as literacy), citizens or subjects above the voting age in a country can normally vote in its elections. Resident aliens can vote in some countries and in others exceptions are made for citizens of countries with which they have close links (e.g. some members of the Commonwealth of Nations, and the members of the European Union).

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