The Gift of Universal Suffrage


By André Lopes Massa

In the book Democracy: A Short Introduction, Crick talks about the importance of defining who essentially gets to participate in the process of running the day to day actions of the democracy. Crick begins by defining citizenship, which is the link that a person is connected to his or her sate. This link is the right to vote in the democratic state and have a voice in how the day to day activities of the state are run. With the definition of citizen established, it becomes essential to define who may qualify as a citizen and thus have the right to vote.

Throughout history, as Crick has pointed out, the criteria for becoming a citizen has always been very restrictive, often meaning democracies sealed off most of the populations from the democratic process. In the times of direct democracies in Ancient Athens, only men were able to partake in the decision making at the Acropolis, with women, children and slaves forced to sit on the sidelines as men made their life decisions for them. After the collapse of the Ancient World, what little forms of democracy became even more restrictive, with property qualifications and wealth making the process even more restrictive to peasants and the working class. In France, the king would sometimes call the Estates General, an advisory body that comprised France’s three classes or estates, which were the clergy, the nobility, and the peasants. Each estate had exactly one vote, meaning that the property owning minority that was the nobility and clergy could always ensure that their interests would always triumph over the working class. In Great Britain, suffrage was only granted to property owning males, while the ability to serve in Parliament was often a privilege accessible to the same group, as members of Parliament were not paid. Britain’s Chartist movement eventually bought about the Reform Bill of 1887, which granted universal male suffrage while full universal suffrage was achieved in 1928, when Britain extended the right to vote to women as well. In the U.S, the right to vote was also restricted to white, property owning males until 1870, when Congress granted African-Americans the right to vote. However, motivated by nothing more than pure racism, state legislatures in Southern states did everything they could to ensure African Americans could not vote, such as establishing literacy quotas. The U.S would guarantee women the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, with full universal suffrage granted with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ended discrimination against African Americans right to vote.

The trend of history has shown that democracy is becoming less restrictive, with universal suffrage now the norm rather than the exception. With the grip of wealth on the democratic process now weakening, the link between a citizen and his state is now more encompassing than ever. With this link now established for just about every adult, it is important that exercise our right to universal suffrage and give true meaning to what it means to be a citizen of democracy.

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