What Is Suffrage?

An overview of the right to vote in public affairs, including how the 19th Amendment granted American women suffrage

  • Grades: 9–12

Suffrage is the right or exercise of the right to vote in public affairs. The freedom of an individual to express a desire for a change in government by choosing between competing people or ideas without fear or reprisal is basic to self-government. Any exclusion from the right of suffrage, or as it is also called, the franchise, excludes that person from a basic means for participating in the political decision-making process.

Suffrage has been viewed as a right, as a privilege, or as a duty. As a right, it is conceived of as an inalienable attribute inherent in the individual. This view has led to the extension of the franchise to include more and more people. As a privilege, suffrage is considered as being conferred on the individual by law and is subject to limitations imposed by governing authorities. It therefore can be restricted to some special parts of the population. Some theories rely on the classical Greek concept of the exercise of the suffrage as the citizen's duty to participate actively in the welfare of the community.

Today universal or near-universal suffrage prevails in most of the world, although the extent to which true choice may be exerted varies widely. The requirements of voting show great uniformity in different regions and under different systems of government. The franchise is almost invariably limited to citizens of a minimum age between 18 and 25, depending on the country, and to residents of the locality. Excluded are the mentally ill and convicted felons. In some nations women's suffrage is still subject to qualifications. In other parts of the world property ownership and racial requirements for voting may be enforced. These qualifications for suffrage, and others based on religion, education, and taxpaying, were universal during the Middle Ages, and many persisted well into the twentieth century. Most exclusions reflected the fears of those with power that extending the vote to individuals who had no stake in the existing order (the young, the poor, and the itinerant) would lead to instability.

In the United States at the time the Constitution was written, it is estimated that only six percent of the adult male population was entitled to vote. Under the influence of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, religious and property qualifications were eliminated. Racial barriers to voting existed legally until the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified after the Civil War. Thereafter, blacks were excluded from the franchise in some states through such devices as the white primary, the poll tax, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. These were gradually interpreted to be unconstitutional under the 15th Amendment or under the equal protection of the laws clause of the 14th Amendment. Women were given the franchise in 1920 under the 19th Amendment, and the right to vote was extended to 18-year-olds in 1971 under the 26th Amendment.

Rita J. Immerman

Bibliography: Arlington, K. M., and Taylor, W., eds., Voting Rights in America (1992); Berghe, G. V., Political Rights for European Citizens (1982); Cultice, W. W., Youth's Battle for the Ballot (1992); Robin, The Theory of Voting (1969); Gilette, William, The Right to Vote (1969); Rogers, D. W., ed., Voting and the Spirit of American Democracy (1992); Williamson, Chilton, American Suffrage From Property to Democracy, 1760-1860 (1960).

  • Part of Collection:
  • Subjects:
    Civil Rights, Elections and Voting, Women's Suffrage
  • Skills:
    Social Studies

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