Suffrage 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 or simply because their members were 'subjects' of feudal kings & princes and not 'free' men. 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 African-Americans 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 were purposely designed to give them less influence than other more favored groups (see District of Columbia voting rights.)

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


Types of suffrage

Universal suffrage is a counterintuitive term that does not actually apply to all citizens or residents of a region, but the extension of voting privileges is given without distinction to race, sex, belief, or social status. Distinctions are frequently made in regards to age, and occasionally mental capacity or conviction record.

Women's suffrage was the goal of suffragists (commonly referred to as "Suffragettes"), who led a major Liberal and Democratic movement of the early 20th century, protesting vigorously for many years demanding equality with men and the right to vote. Prominent suffragists include Susan B. Anthony, Emmeline Pankhurst, Kate Sheppard and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Manhood suffrage is the opposite of this—restriction of universal suffrage to male voters only.

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.

Census suffrage is the opposite of Equal suffrage: the suffrage is limited, usually to the propertied classes, but can still be universal, i.e. including for instance women or blacks granted they meet the census.

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

Forms of exclusion from suffrage

Race or ethnic group

See the article on universal suffrage


See women's suffrage

Social class

Up until the 19th century, many Western democracies had property qualifications in their electoral laws, that meant that only people with a certain degree of wealth could vote. Today these laws have largely been abolished. However in some "democratic" countries this still applies in practice (although perhaps unintentionally) even though not in law; most democratic countries require an address for the electors to be qualified to vote, this, in practice excludes all those who have not achieved enough wealth as to have the means to own or rent living quarters. Many also discriminate on the basis of criminal or psychiatric record (see below) which are very strongly correlated with class.


Despite the boast 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 and 21. Following movements to enfranchise women, minorities and the poor, a world wide youth suffrage movement is now brewing. An integral part of the wider youth rights movement, youth suffrage proponents seek to lower or abolish the voting age.

In all democratic countries, young people are excluded from voting in local and national elections, though the voting age is set at different ages ranging from 15 to 21. 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 with the 'right' to drive is obvious, where 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.

Prisoners and other excluded groups

Many countries have disenfranchisement of sentenced prisoners, in the USA voting privileges are denied to prisoners by some states, however several others (Canada and most of the countries of the European Union) allow prisoners to vote, regardless of time served, nature of the crime, etc. Some countries (and U.S. states) also deny the right to vote to those convicted of serious crimes, even after they are released from prison. In some cases (e.g. the felon disfranchisement laws found in many U.S. states) the denial of the right to vote is automatic on conviction of a serious criminal offence; 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. 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.

Suffrage today

Today, in most democracies, the right 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 local elections 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, and the members of the European Union).

It may be surprising that in the US citizens technically lack a constitutional right to vote ( This bit of information is misleading however until one understands that under the United States' federal system, individual states administer most issues relating to voting procedure. Several amendments to the federal constitution, however, specifically prohibit states from denying the vote for certain reasons, such as the 15th amendment which says "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Other amendments prohibit states from denying the vote on account of sex or age (for those over age 18).

Interestingly a few groups have attempted to change this system, such as the National Voting Rights Institute, and the Center for Voting and Democracy. In 2003, U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced House Resolution 28 ( to seek congressional support for a Constitutional Amendment that would address the issue. See also District of Columbia voting rights.

See also

External Links

  • ( - Establishing a Much Needed Constitutional Right to Vote
  • Voting, Elections, Democracy, Republicanism, and the Electoral College ( Discusses voting, elections, democracy, republicanism, and the Electoral College. Includes a procedural guide to the electoral college, parts of the Constitution and constitutional amendments regarding voting and elections, and includes the original paper by Alexander Hamilton, "Federalist No. 68 - The Mode of Electing the President", which illustrates much of the founding fathers' original thinking regarding the Electoral

es:Sufragio is:Kosningaréttur nl:Stemrecht


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