In modern day Britain, every British citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote. But it wasn’t always that way. Women, young people and even the working class were denied the vote in the past. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way. Read on as we take a look at how British voting rights have changed over the years.
Prior to the Great Reform Act, voting was dependent on three criteria – sex, age and property. Only men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote – and only if they owned property over a certain value. It was essentially a way of making voting a rich man’s privilege, reinforced by small boroughs having more MPs than larger counties, which were predominantly inhabited by poorer workers.
The Great Reform Act – 1832
In 1832, the Great Reform Act broadened the spectrum of voters to include the likes of landowners and shopkeepers as part of the property criteria. Householders paying more than £10 in annual rent were also given the vote – and the constituency boundaries were rearranged to make representation less unfair.
The act still defined voters as ‘male persons’, however, and continued to exclude swathes of working class workers from elections. Subsequent reforms in 1867 and 1884 increased the electorate further with broader property and rental criteria. They also continued to make voting boundaries more fair, but failed to make any changes for women.
The Representation of the People Act – 1918
In February 1918, the Representation of the People Act made two major changes to voting criteria – it removed practically all property requirements for men over 21 and allowed women over 30 to vote. Property qualifications were kept in place when giving women over 30 the vote, however, with voting rights also given to men in the armed forces from the age of 19.
This landmark change for women came after 85 years of debate on the issue, with over 15 years of protests, militancy and hunger strikes by the Women’s Social and Political Union and Women’s Freedom League. Later that year, on December 14th, millions of women voted for the first time ever – with around 8.5 million now eligible.
Equal Franchise Act – 1928
At last, women were given voting equality to men. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave all women over 21 the right to vote, removing property requirements completely. Some 15 million women were eligible to vote in the following 1929 General Election.
Representation of the People Act – 1969
The 1969 Representation of the People Act made many changes we’re familiar with today. The voting age was reduced to 18, with undergraduate students now allowed to vote in their university constituency.
And in the future?
So, what can we expect next? Will the voting age be lowered further? Votes at 16 is a campaign looking to extend suffrage to 16 and 17 year-olds, and achieved this right in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. There’s also a debate around EU citizens voting in the UK, but that looks less likely to change with Britain leaving the EU.