New Worlds: The Right to Vote

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Democracy is rule by the people, and voting is how we assert that power. Without the right to vote — also called suffrage or political franchise — you don’t have a democracy.

But who gets the right to vote?

Even in a hunter-gatherer society, the answer usually isn’t “every living member.” Children are routinely excluded from the exercise of power, for the understandable reason that the younger they are, the less likely they are to understand what they’re voting on. Like other privileges, the right to have a voice in decision-making frequently accompanies formal adulthood, i.e. whatever rite of passage marks that transition. In modern industrialized democracies, where such rites have often fallen by the wayside, it’s simply pegged to a legislated age: between 16 and 25, depending on the country, with the most common threshold being 18, and with a general trend toward lowering it over the last fifty years. Some people propose also having a maximum voting age, on the grounds that the elderly have less stake in a future they’re less likely to see — though I’m not aware of any polity where such a cap has been instituted.

Thanks to patriarchy, it also used to be the default that only male citizens could vote. Many arguments were advanced to defend this arrangement: women didn’t want the burden of helping to steer the country; women would vote foolishly and without proper understanding of the issues; women were not subject to obligations like military service and therefore should not have the privilege of voting; women didn’t need suffrage, because their interests were more than adequately represented by the votes of their fathers (if unmarried) or husbands (if married). That last argument echoes the notion that parents represent the interests of their minor children — and it’s interesting to note that over the last century, some have proposed that parents should be able to cast proxy votes for those children, thereby decreasing the political power of the oldest generations, whose offspring are fully grown.

Needless to say, while some women proudly asserted that they didn’t need or want to vote, the overall trend didn’t agree with them. Voting rights for women flickered here and there in the past, usually in the form of specific women being given the franchise (such as powerful abbesses in Christian Europe), and early European contact with the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois remarked upon the voice women could wield in their political councils. Broad-based and lasting suffrage for women, however, didn’t really get rolling until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I previously mentioned the despicable Three-fifths Compromise, which increased voting power for Southern states in the U.S. House of Representatives on the basis of their disenfranchised slaves. But what about free Blacks? Sometimes they could vote, sometimes not, and sometimes that right (or rather, its lack) was very baldly delineated along racial lines. Native Americans were similarly denied, usually on the basis of the weird and often-betrayed treaties they signed with the federal government: because the tribes were theoretically sovereign nations, their members were not U.S. citizens, and therefore didn’t have the right to vote on the government that routinely rewrote those treaties to its liking. But even giving up tribal affiliation didn’t guarantee the right to vote, which was openly or covertly restricted to white men.

One of the ways that restriction happened was through a property requirement. In many parts of the world, you could only vote if you held property, i.e. land. The reasoning was that since taxes were assessed based on land ownership, only property-owners had the burden of such taxes, ergo only they should be eligible to vote — though in the instances where such laws had a minimum property requirement, it becomes more blatantly a matter of restricting voting to the wealthy, as poorer land-holders were disenfranchised right along with women, children, and people of the wrong ethnicity. (They generally got their rights sooner, though, in the slow march to universal suffrage.) Other countries required a fee to vote, which effectively denied that right to those too poor to afford it.

Criminal record is another vector we’ve leaned on, not just in the past but in the present. In most parts of the United States, incarcerated felons are stripped of the right to vote, and the point at which they get those back — or if they do — varies from state to state, anywhere from “immediately upon release” to “after probation ends” to “only under certain circumstances.” The fact that felon voting bans sprang into existence right after the end of the Civil War is a red flag for the underlying dynamic: when the law granted suffrage to men of color, white supremacy looked for ways to take it back. These days we have a judicial system that’s more likely to hand down a felony conviction to a defendant of color than a white one committing the same crime . . . and so the imbalance of power is maintained.

The list of methods we’ve used to restrict voting rights just keeps going. Religion? Catholics have sometimes been denied those rights in Protestant countries, on the grounds that their loyalty would be to the Pope rather than to their national leaders; Jews have similarly been subject to disenfranchisement, and Quakers, too. Education? Usually in the form of literacy tests . . . which might or might not test your actual literacy, as Black voters in the southern U.S. were often deemed to have failed, even when they could read. Even what job you hold might affect your rights, as there have been sporadic laws barring members of the military or the police from voting.

(Spin all of this around, by the way, and you’re looking at “passive suffrage,” which is the right to be a candidate for office. Similar restrictions tend to apply, and often more stringently: e.g. you must be older than mere voting age, be a natural-born citizen rather than a naturalized one, and so forth.)

And finally, there’s the simple question of how easy you make it to vote. In Australia, voting is mandatory; in the U.S., we struggle to get people to participate. There are measures short of a mandate that increase participation, like widespread polling locations, automatic registration of new voters when they come of age, the ability to vote by mail, and making a election day a holiday, so that voters needn’t worry about taking time off work to go cast their ballots. But unsurprisingly, these measures tend to be opposed by those who would prefer that voting be restricted in practice, if not in law, to certain demographics.

In other words, the power struggles of democracy don’t only play out in the candidates elected and the laws ratified; they also play out in the process by which those votes even take place. In fiction, at least, there’s some tasty drama in that.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Right to Vote — 8 Comments

  1. I’m a strong believer that the right to vote should be inalienable. Even felons in prison should vote.

    The process should be facilitated for all.

    I am in favor of fining people who don’t vote.

    • Agreed on the felons, but not on the fining. Among other things, right now it is very difficult in some places for people to vote — they can only do it in person at a poll, when the polls may be far away or have long lines, and they can’t afford to take time off work.

    • If a person is not fit to determine whether he is fit to vote, on what issue is his judgment more trustworthy?

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: The Right to Vote - Swan Tower

  3. Technically voting in Australia isn’t compulsory–only getting your name marked off the voting roll is. You can turn up to a polling place, get your name marked off, and return your ballot paper empty. (Having worked for a few elections I can say that people sometimes leave… colourful suggestions on their ballots!). If your name isn’t marked off you get a fine of I think about $50. Elections are held on Saturdays so most people can vote, but there’s also early voting and absentee ballots.

    There’s also the time honoured democracy sausage at polling places! After you vote you can buy a sausage sandwich and celebrate in style.

  4. Having spent too many years in Chicago, with parents who grew up there:

    Don’t forget about voters like the ones here (I used to get on and off the train just to the east). In a broader sense, it’s not just in Chicago that there are voters like these — it was one of the methods used in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia to ensure that elections had the “right” results.

    • I grew up in downstate Illinois, and lived in the Chicago area for a number of years as an adult. I remember the jokes along the lines of “people who don’t believe in life after death should come to Chicago on election day.”

  5. There’s also the link between voting and military service. Voting power in the Roman Republic scaled with wealth, but so did expected or even allowed military service; the proletariat had very little power but also couldn’t serve in the legions, until Marius’s reforms; meanwhile wealthier citizens were expected to be heavily armed soldiers at their expense, or even cavalrymen. Athenian democracy might have been linked to the contribution of poor citizens as rowers in the war galleys. And in perhaps less formal ways, AIUI the “assembly of warriors” was commonly important in Germanic tribes and early Greek city-states (with signs of the latter even in Homer’s epics.)