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The franchise, or the privilege or right to vote to elect public representatives or enact legislation, originated with the ancient Greek city-states of the fifth century BCE. As a political right, the franchise constitutes one of the core elements in modern citizenship, along with other political, civil, and social rights. In modern times the extension of franchise across European and North American nationstates marked the passage from a paternalistic form of government in the eighteenth century to the acceptance of the concept of citizenship, which is the foundation of democracy.
There has been wide variation across countries in the timing and regulation of the franchise. In most countries the franchise was extended gradually, as occurred in Great Britain, France, and the United States. In Finland, by contrast, it was extended all at once in the reform of 1906. The franchise may also be exercised at only certain levels of representation. In 1896, for example, women in Idaho were permitted to vote in school elections but not in state or federal elections, while women in Brazil were enfranchised in 1927 in the state of Rio Grande do Norte but not at the federal level. Since 2004 noncitizens in Belgium may vote in local elections only.
Where the franchise was extended gradually, voters entered the electorate in social groups. For instance, in Norway the franchise was extended to property holders in 1814, to manual workers and others in 1900, and to women in two stages in 1907 and 1913. Retractions of the franchise have also taken place. In France, for example, the franchise was granted to a large number of citizens in the late 1700s but was then severely contracted in 1815. Various qualifications have been used to regulate the franchise, including church membership, religious denomination, property ownership, taxpaying, literacy, a poll tax, residency, gender, and age. All such requirements have been aimed at disenfranchising different social groups at different times.
Franchise rules come about as a result of political conflict or as a by-product of conflicts over other issues. As E. E. Schattschneider points out in The Semisovereign People (1960), political conflicts that may produce franchise changes include political party competition, that is, from a conflict among governing elites for electoral advantage. In such cases extending the franchise to certain social groups may decide the outcome of elections to the advantage of the party or parties that appeal to the new voters. Franchise extensions may also be the product of conflict between governing elites and groups excluded from the electoral process, such as women or workers and their organizational representatives. Pressure from excluded groups may lead to franchise extensions by governing elites in an attempt to maintain the legitimacy of their governance (Freeman and Snidal 1982), especially when economic conditions or foreign policy objectives threaten the stability of the current political regime.
Conflicts over other issues, including economic conflict, may produce franchise changes as a by-product. For instance, international trade in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States, particularly the conflict between protectionists and free traders, is cited by Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, the authors of Capitalist Development and Democracy (1992), as underlying the coalitions supporting or opposing franchise extensions. Opponents in the conflict devised franchise rules to change the balance of power in legislatures. Since about the mid-1900s democratic expectations have rendered the franchise a political right basic to democratic citizenship, so universal franchise with an age requirement has been generally granted automatically.
- Freeman, John, and Duncan Snidal. 1982. Diffusion, Development and Democratization: Enfranchisement in Western Europe. Canadian Journal of Political Science 15 (2): 299–329.
- Marshall, T. H., and Tom Bottomore. 1950. Citizenship and Social Class, and Other Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Porter, Kirk H. 1918. A History of Suffrage in the United Stat Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. 1992. Capitalist Development and Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
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