The Reform Acts were a series of British legislative measures (1832, 1867–68, 1885) that broadened the voting franchise for Parliament and reduced disparities among constituencies. Electoral reform had been urged in the 1780s by William Pitt the Younger as well as Charles James Fox, but the reaction against the French Revolution created a more conservative political climate. By the late 1820s the movement for reform was again strong, and the Whig government of the 2d Earl Grey overcame opposition to the first Reform Bill by threatening to create enough Whig peers to ensure its passage through the House of Lords. The bill was enacted in 1832.

The first Reform Act eliminated many "rotten boroughs" (depopulated constituencies) and "pocket boroughs" (constituencies controlled by the crown and other landowners), transferring their representation to such previously unrepresented large cities as Birmingham and Manchester and to the more populous counties. The vote was extended to males who occupied premises valued at £10 annually, bringing the middle class into the political arena, and the introduction of systematic registration procedures spurred the development of party organizations. Although the act expanded the franchise by 50 percent, still, only 1 out of 30 persons could vote, and the landowning class remained dominant.

Popular agitation spurred by John Bright and others led to a further extension of the franchise in 1867. After the failure of the Liberals under Lord John Russell (later 1st Earl Russell) to win passage of their Reform Bill, the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli succeeded with more radical proposals. The act of 1867 extended the vote to most homeowners and renters and thus enfranchised many urban laborers. The final Reform Acts, which were passed in 1884 and 1885 under the Liberal government of William Gladstone, assimilated the county with the borough franchise and gave the vote to most agricultural workers.

The secret ballot (1872) and the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act (1883) were other important 19th-century measures of electoral reform. The Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928 extended the vote to women; the act of 1949 eliminated plural voting; and the 1969 act lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Donald Southgate

Bibliography: Brock, Michael, The Great Reform Act (1973); Lopatin, Nancy, Political Unions, Popular Politics, and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (1999); McCord, Norman, English History, 1815–1906 (1991); Smith, F. B., The Making of the Second Reform Bill (1966; repr. 1993).