Electoral participation and the right to vote
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“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
Emmeline Pankhurst, 1908
With turnout at the three general elections in the 21st century reaching post-war lows, disengagement with politics has become a cause for concern. But at the start of the 20th century, the right to vote was itself a matter of fierce debate. In 1908, the franchise was limited to men over 21 who ‘paid rates’ or owned property: about 60% of the adult male population.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise so there was no longer a property qualification for men. More famously, perhaps, it extended the vote to women at parliamentary elections, though this was limited to those over 30, and the property qualification still applied to them. Full electoral equality was not achieved until 1928, and the franchise as we know it today did not emerge until 1969, when the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18. In the meantime, additional votes granted to certain business owners, who could vote twice if their premises was in a different constituency, and university graduates, who could vote for a second MP in one of 12 ‘university constituencies’, were abolished in 1948.
Today, as hard-fought battles for universal suffrage drift from living memory, concern has turned to who does and doesn’t vote, and why. Analysis suggests that Britain is divided into ‘voters’, who tend to be older, from rural areas and relatively wealthy, and ‘non-voters’, who tend to be younger, urban and relatively worse off. This economic divide gives the lie to the notion that people fail to vote out of contentment with the status quo; but beyond this, the question of why people are less inclined to vote is hard to answer. The decline in turnout mirrors a broader decline in civic participation, falling trust in politicians, and a convergence of the main parties to the political centre. Turnouts are low when the margin of victory is high, suggesting people are more inclined to vote if the result is uncertain.
Despite our preoccupation with voter turnout, questions about who should qualify to vote have not disappeared entirely. The 2012 Queen’s speech included a Bill to move from household to individual voter registration. Will this erect another barrier to electoral participation among those already marginalised? What will be the outcome of recent debate on prisoner voting? Should the franchise be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds when fewer than half of those aged 18-24 currently vote in general elections? Though they are unlikely to bring modern-day suffragists to the streets, questions about the limits of the franchise remain fundamental to any democracy.
The chart shows the electorate (% of the population eligible to vote) and turnout (% of eligible population choosing to vote) at UK General Elections since 1900.