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.