Right to express one’s choice by vote is called Franchise. When the right to vote or franchise is given to every adult in a state, it is known as the Universal Adult Franchise.
In its original 19th-century usage by reformers in Britain, universal suffrage was understood to mean only universal manhood suffrage; the vote was extended to women later, during the women’s suffrage movement.
There are variations among countries in terms of specifics of the right to vote; the minimum age is usually between 18 and 25 years (see age of majority) and “the insane, certain classes of convicted criminals, and those punished for certain electoral offenses” sometimes lack the right to vote.
Evolution of universal adult suffrage around the globe
France, under the 1793 Jacobin constitution, was the first major country to enact suffrage for all adult males, though it was never formally used in practice (the subsequent election occurring in 1795 after the fall of the Jacobin government in 1794). Elsewhere in the Francophone world, the Republic of Haiti legislated for universal male suffrage in 1816. The Second French Republic instituted adult male suffrage after the revolution of 1848.
Following the French revolutions, movements in the Western world toward universal suffrage occurred in the early 19th century, and focused on removing property requirements for voting. In 1867 Germany (the North German Confederation) enacted suffrage for all adult males.
On 19 September 1893 the British Governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow, gave assent to a new electoral act, which meant that New Zealand became the first British-controlled colony in which women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.This was followed shortly after by the colony of South Australia in 1894, which was the second to allow women to vote, but the first colony to permit women to stand for election as well. Twelve years later, the autonomous Russian territory known as Grand Duchy of Finland (which became the Republic of Finland in 1917) became the first territory in the world to implement unrestricted universal suffrage, as women could stand as candidates, unlike in New Zealand, and without indigenous ethnic exclusion, like in Australia. It also lead to the election of the world’s first female members of parliament the following year. Federal states and colonial or autonomous territories prior to World War I have multiple examples of early introduction of universal suffrage. However, these legal changes were effected with the permission of the British, Russian or other government bodies, which were considered the sovereign nation at the time. For this reason, Australia (1901), New Zealand (1908) and Finland (1917) all have different dates of achieving independent nationhood.
In the United States, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870 during the Reconstruction era, provided that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite the amendment, however, blacks were disfranchised in the former Confederate states after 1877; Southern officials ignored the amendment and blocked black citizens from voting through a variety of devices, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Southern blacks did not effectively receive the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1893 the self-governing colony New Zealand became the first country in the world (except for the short-lived 18th-century Corsican Republic) to grant active universal suffrage by giving women the right to vote. It did not grant universal full suffrage (the right to both vote and be a candidate, or both active and passive suffrage) until 1919.
Evolution of adult suffrage in India
In less than a week’s time, the people of India, irrespective of their caste, creed, education or income, like they have done 16 times before, will elect members to the Lok Sabha. This is made possible by the Constitution of India, 1950 that encodes the principle of universal adult franchise.
This principle was denied to Indians during British rule, chiefly by the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935, two critical pieces of British legislation that governed colonial India. Under these Acts, only those who satisfied certain criteria that included income, property and education could vote for members of the provincial and central legislatures. On average, only 3-10% of the Indian population were allowed to exercise their franchise. For decades, most Indians had no voice in elections.
A significant strand of the Indian freedom movement was centred around demands for universal adult franchise. We find this articulated in most Indian historical constitutions, the earliest of which was the Constitution of India Bill 1895 that gave every citizen ‘a right to give one vote for electing a member to the Parliament of India and one local Legislative Council’.
Moving into the early 20th century, two significant historical constitutions did not fully echo the 1895 Bill. The first, Lucknow Pact 1916, authored jointly by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, called for ‘as broad a franchise as possible’. The second, Commonwealth Bill 1925, drafted by a consortium of Indian political groups, provided for a limited franchise: voting rights were subject to criteria that resembled British legalisation – education, land and income. It is plausible that these historical constitutions were informed by political pragmatism: they were aimed to, among other things, persuade the British to provide for greater involvement of Indians in government. An aggressive demand for full adult franchise would have led the British to not show up at the negotiating table altogether.
Towards the end of the 1920s however, things changed radically. Calls for greater levels of self-government within the British Empire – dominion status, transformed into calls for ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘complete freedom’. Indian leaders now declared that India should be governed by a Constitution written by Indians, and this Constitution would unequivocally provide universal adult franchise. The Nehru Report 1928 stated that ‘Every person of either sex who has attained the age of 21, and is not disqualified by law, shall be entitled to vote’. The Karachi Resolution 1931 argued that any Constitution of India must contain ‘adult suffrage’.
In the years leading up to the setting up of the Constituent Assembly, more Indian historical constitutions like the Gandhian Constitution of Free India 1946, Ambedkar’s States and Minorities 1945, and the Sapru Report 1945, provided for universal adult franchise. In 1946, the Cabinet Mission Plan recognised the principle as the ideal mode of electing members to the Constituent Assembly. But it felt that implementing universal adult franchise would ‘unacceptably delay’ the setting up of the Assembly. And so, Assembly members ended up being elected indirectly – by members of the recently elected provincial legislatures.
These indirectly elected Assembly members did not lose sight of universal adult suffrage. When it came to the topic of elections, the Assembly’s Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights was firm that universal adult suffrage must be guaranteed by the Constitution and proceeded to draft provisions to this effect. In about 2 years, the final constitution of India 1950, in Part 15, through Article 326 stated explicitly stated – Elections to the House of the People and to the Legislative Assemblies of States to be on the basis of adult suffrage. A year later, between October 1951 and March 1952, 17 crore Indians, for the first time in Indian political and constitutional history, came out and voted for independent India’s first Lok Sabha based on universal adult franchise.
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