Encyclopedia > Suffrage

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Suffrage is the right to vote, or the exercise of that right.

Universal suffrage is the extension of voting privileges to all adults, without distinction to race, sex, belief or social status. It's usually considered the hallmark of modern democracies.

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, welth 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.

Women's suffrage was the goal of the 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 suffragettes include Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Historically, many groups have been excluded from the right to vote, on various grounds. Sometimes this exclusion is an explicit policy, clearly stated in the electoral laws; at other times it is 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.) And sometimes a group will be permitted to vote, but the electoral system or institutions of government will be purposely designed to give them less influence than other more favoured groups.

The legitimacy of democratic government is derived from suffrage. As the oldest example, The United States' Declaration of Independence, after asserting basic human rights, goes on to say:

  "...to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
  deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Table of contents

Ethnic or Racial Exclusion

See universal suffrage

Exclusion on grounds of 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 are not fortunate enough to have achieved enough wealth as to permit them to own or rent living quarters.

Exclusion on the grounds of gender

See woman's suffrage

Right to Vote Today

Today, in most democracies, the right to vote is granted without discrimination with regard to race, ethnicity, class or gender. Only citizens of a country can normally vote in its elections, although resident aliens can vote in local elections in some countries. In some countries 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).

In the USA the right to vote is denied to prisoners by some states, however other countries like Germany allow prisoners to vote. Some countries 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. Another exemption from the right to vote is made by some countries for people in psychiatric facilities.

See also: Franchise, Electorate, Democracy

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