Universal suffrage (also universal adult suffrage, general suffrage or common suffrage) consists of the extension of the right to vote to adult citizens (or subjects) as a whole, though it may also mean extending said right to minors (Demeny voting) and non-citizens. Although suffrage has two necessary components, the right to vote and opportunities to vote, the term universal suffrage is associated only with the right to vote and ignores the other aspect, the frequency that an incumbent government consults the electorate. Historically, universal suffrage often in fact refers to universal adult male suffrage.
The concept of universal suffrage originally referred to all male citizens having the right to vote, regardless of property requirements or other measures of wealth. The first system to explicitly claim to use universal suffrage was France which is generally recognized as the first national system to abolish all property requirements for voting. In theory France first used universal (male) suffrage in 1792 during the revolutionary period, although the turmoil of the period made this ineffective. France and Switzerland have used universal male suffrage continuously since 1848 (for resident male citizens), longer than any other countries. The German Empire had universal male suffrage from its beginning in 1871.
In most countries, full universal suffrage – with the inclusion of women – followed universal male suffrage by about ten to twenty years. A notable exception is France, where women could not vote until 1946.
In the first modern democracies, the vote was restricted to those having adequate property and wealth, which almost always meant a minority of the male population. In some jurisdictions, other restrictions existed, such as restrictions on voters of a given religion. In all modern democracies the number of people who could vote increased gradually with time. The 19th century featured movements advocating "universal suffrage" (i.e. male) The democratic movement of the late 19th century, unifying liberals and social democrats, particularly in northern Europe, used the slogan Equal and Common Suffrage.
The concept of universal suffrage does not imply any impropriety in placing restrictions on the voting of convicted criminals or mentally ill persons. Such restrictions exist in many countries with universal suffrage. Equally, some universal suffrage systems apply only to resident citizens.
The first movements toward universal suffrage occurred in the early 19th century, and focused on removing property requirements for voting. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the focus of the universal suffrage movement became the removal of restrictions against women having the right to vote.
Several countries which had enacted universal suffrage had their normal legal process,or their existence, interrupted during the first world war.
Many societies in the past have denied people the right to vote on the basis of race or ethnicity. For example, non-white people could not vote in national elections during apartheid-era South Africa, until the system came to an end with the first free multi-party elections in 1994. In the pre-Civil Rights Era American South, African Americans often technically had the right to vote, but various means prevented many of them from exercising that right.
Many states within the U.S. previously disenfranchised paupers, persons who either paid no direct taxes or those who received public assistance.
There are also differing degrees of legal recognition of non-resident citizens: non-resident Italians have representatives at-large in the Italian parliament; U.S. citizens voting abroad vote as residents of the last state where they (or their parents) lived; British people, however, cannot vote for their national parliament unless they have lived in the UK in the last fifteen years. A few nations also restrict those who are involved in the military or police forces, as it is in the case of Kuwait.
Many democratic countries, most notably the United Kingdom and France have had colonies, the inhabitants of which have not, or mostly not, been citizens of the imperial power, but subjects; subjects have generally not been entitled to vote for the imperial legislature. A peculiarly complex case is that of Algeria under the Fourth French Republic; Algeria was legally an integral part of France, but citizenship was restricted (as in the French colonies proper) by culture, not by race or ethnicity. Any Algerian could become a French citizen by choosing to live like a Frenchman; very few did.
Citizens of an EU Member State are allowed to vote in EU parliamentary elections, as well as some local elections. For example, a British person living in Graz, Austria, would be able to vote in for the European Parliament as a resident of the "electoral district" of Austria, and to vote in Graz municipal elections. He would, however, not be able to vote in Austrian (federal) elections, or Styrian (state) elections. Similarly, all locally resident EU citizens in the UK are allowed to vote for representatives of the local council, and those resident in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may vote for the devolved parliaments or assemblies, but only British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens are allowed to vote for the British House of Commons.
Notable dates for universal suffrage in the world
States have granted and revoked universal suffrage at various times.
Note: The table can be sorted alphabetically or chronologically using the Sort none.gif icon.
Year Country / Territory Notes
Universal suffrage by country/territory 1838 Pitcairn Island Voting rights were extended to include the female descendants of the Bounty mutineers who lived on Pitcairn Islands (now a British Overseas Territory) in 1838, and this right transferred with their 1856 resettlement to Norfolk Island (now an Australian external territory).
1882 Iceland Women of sufficient financial standing, mainly widows and women that held land, and were over the age of 25, could vote in local municipal and county elections. Women were, however, unable to run for office until 1907 when the municipalities of Reykjavík and Hafnarfjörður allowed women to run for city council. The voting right was extended further three more times in 1909, when married women were allowed to hold office, in 1915 when all women over the age of forty were allowed full suffrage and again in 1920 when the age limit was set down to 25 years of age.
1889 Franceville Universal suffrage without distinction of sex or race; however, only whites could hold office. After 1906 it was jointly ruled by France and Britain and is now part of Vanuatu.
1893 New Zealand With the extension of voting rights to women, the self-governing British colony became first major nation to grant universal suffrage; however, women were not eligible to stand for parliament until 1919. Universal suffrage for Māori men over 21 granted 1867; extended to European males 1879.
1895 Australia Britain's Australian colonies granted male suffrage from the 1850s and in 1895 the women of South Australia achieved the right to both vote and stand for Parliament, enabling Catherine Helen Spence to be the first to stand as a political candidate in 1897. The Australian colonies federated as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 and the Franchise Act of 1902, granted the right to vote to men and women. However, the Act also restricted votes for 'natives' unless they were already enrolled. These restrictions were unevenly applied and were relaxed after World War II, with full rights restored by the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1962.
1906 Grand Principality of Finland As an autonomous Grand Principality in the Russian Empire, including women, first nation to also allow women as candidates, and the first nation in the world to adopt universal suffrage. The Finnish parliamentary election of 1907 was the first time when women were actually elected (19 of 200 MPs). Finland became independent with the same Universal Suffrage in 1917.
1913 Norway Full male suffrage in 1898, with women included in 1913, first independent nation to also allow women as candidates.
1915 Denmark First voting rights to anyone came in 1849, and the rules were changed a number of times. But it was not until the change of the constitution in 1915 that all men and women had influence on all chambers.
1917 Estonia Two tiered elections were held, with 62 representatives from rural communities and towns elected in May–June and July–August, respectively.
1918 Germany After the Central Powers' defeat in World War I and the introduction of a democratic system, the Weimar Republic. Revoked during 1935–1945 by the Nuremberg Laws. The restrictions applied also to the territories occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The German Empire (and the North German Confederation before it) had had universal male suffrage since 1867/71, which then has been one of the most progressive election laws.
1918 Austria After the Central Powers' defeat in World War I universal suffrage including women.
1918 First Czechoslovak Republic After the Central Powers' defeat in World War I universal suffrage including women.
1918 Kingdom of Hungary After the Central Powers' defeat in World War I
1918 Second Polish Republic Universal suffrage for men and women over 21.
1918 Soviet Union With the 1918 Soviet Constitution; direct voting and the lifting of some political restrictions not until the 1936 Soviet Constitution.
1919 Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became part of the Soviet Union in 1920
1919 Democratic Republic of Armenia became part of the Soviet Union in 1920
1919 Democratic Republic of Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1921
1919 Latvia Universal suffrage introduced in Law of elections to the Constituent assembly
1919 Netherlands From 1917 full suffrage for men aged 23 and above. From 1919 universal suffrage for men and women aged 23. From 1971 suffrage for men and women aged 18 and older.
1920 Canada 1920 was the year that Canada (excluding Quebec) enacted suffrage for both sexes. First Nations (of either sex) were not allowed to vote until 1960.
1921 Sweden Full male suffrage 1911 for those aged 25 and above, but only to one of two equally weighed chambers. Universal suffrage for men and women later enacted.
1922 Republic of Ireland Then known as the Irish Free State, the country changed previous British law to enfranchise women equally with men in 1921.
1925 Newfoundland Joined Canada in 1949.
1928 United Kingdom Universal suffrage for all men in 1919 (in national elections). Women granted vote for first time in the same year but about 25% of women were excluded on property grounds until 1928. The Representation of the People Act of 1948 removed multiple voting (i.e. established one person, one vote) and extended universal suffrage to local elections (apart from Northern Ireland elections where the situation was brought in line in 1968)
1931 Ceylon (now as Sri Lanka) Universal suffrage for all irrespective of race, ethnicity, language, or gender.
1932 Brazil Replaced the previous system of male suffrage, from 1891, which excluded homeless, women, priests, the military and illiterates.
1933 Spain Suffrage for men practiced since 1869 to 1923 and in the Second Spanish Republic (1931–1936). On November 19, 1933 women were granted the right to vote. Revoked during Franco era (1939–1975) and recovered since 1977 in the new Spanish Constitution.
1935 Burma Last free elections held in 1990.
1943 Lebanon Universal suffrage for all adult males and females since the independence of Lebanon (The Chamber of Deputies is shared equally between Christians and Muslims, rather than elected by universal suffrage that would have provided a Muslim majority).
1944 France Universal suffrage including women introduced
1944 Jamaica Universal suffrage for all adult males and females
1945 Bulgaria Universal suffrage including women and men serving in the Army was instituted by the government of the Fatherland front.
1945 Japan Universal suffrage including women introduced
1947 Republic of China (now Taiwan) Universal suffrage under the Constitution of the Republic of China
1948 United Nations Provision of "universal and equal suffrage" in Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Article 21(3)]
1948 Israel Universal suffrage since the founding of the State of Israel.
1948 South Korea Universal suffrage since the founding of the Republic of Korea
1949 Chile From 1925 full suffrage for men aged 21 and above and able to read and write. From 1949 universal suffrage for men and women aged 21 and above and able to read and write. From 1971 suffrage for men and women aged 18 and older.
1950 India All adult citizens as recognized by the Constitution of India, irrespective of race or gender on the founding of the Republic of India
1951 Argentina Universal male suffrage granted in 1912; universal women's suffrage introduced in 1947.
1951 Ghana Universal suffrage granted for the 1951 legislative election.
1952 Bolivia Universal suffrage granted by decree; first elections in 1956; women's suffrage coincided with abolition of literacy requirements.
1952 Greece Universal male suffrage in 1864, with secret ballot; women given the vote in local elections since 1930 and in parliamentary elections since 1952.
1956 Colombia Electorate defined on the basis of adult franchise and joint electorate.
1963 Iran Reforms under Shah's "White Revolution"
1964 Afghanistan Constitution transformed Afghanistan into a modern democracy.
1965 United States In 1870 the 15th Amendment granted suffrage to African Americans, and in 1920 the 19th Amendment extended the franchise to women, thereby establishing de jure universal suffrage. However, many Southern States pro-actively disenfranchised black voters through poll taxation, literacy tests and bureaucratic loopholes. Full enfranchisement was achieved in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964. The 26th Amendment set the voting age to 18.
1971 Switzerland Introduction of women's suffrage at the federal level; for cantonal elections this was not completed until 1990.
1979 European Community (now European Union)
1980 Zimbabwe Universal suffrage introduced in the 1978 Internal Settlement between Ian Smith and Abel Muzorewa. The 1979 Lancaster House constitution agreed to accommodate the nationalists also affirmed universal suffrage but with a special role for whites. Universal suffrage with no special consideration for race came in 1987. Previously Rhodesia had allowed only whites to vote, under policies based on legislated racial discrimination.
1994 South Africa universal suffrage not regarding race or colour of skin; Blacks and Coloureds were denied the right to vote during the Apartheid era (1948–1994). White women's suffrage granted in 1930.
1996 Taiwan See above 1947 Republic of China.
2002 Bahrain Universal male suffrage in 1973, although parliament was suspended and dissolved in 1975 for approximately 30 years.
2005 Kuwait Universal adult male suffrage since 1962, for citizens who are 21 or older, with the exception of those who, at the time of elections, serve in the armed forces and, citizens who have been naturalized for fewer than 30 years. Note: As of 2005, women who satisfy the age and citizenship requirements are allowed to vote provided both men and women vote in separate polling locations.
2006–2011 U.A.E. Limited, will be fully expanded by 2011.
2013? Qatar Municipal elections since 1999.
2017 (planned) Hong Kong
The first women's suffrage was granted in Corsica in 1755 and lasted until 1769.
Women's suffrage (with the same property qualifications as for men) was next granted in New Jersey in 1776 (the word "inhabitants" was used instead of "men") and rescinded in 1807.
The Pitcairn Islands granted restricted women's suffrage in 1838. Various other countries and states granted restricted women's suffrage in the later half of the nineteenth century, starting with South Australia in 1861.
The first unrestricted women's suffrage in terms of voting rights (women were not initially permitted to stand for election) in a major country was granted in New Zealand. The women's suffrage bill was adopted mere weeks before the general election of 1893.
South Australia first granted women suffrage and allowed them to stand for parliament in 1894.
In 1931, the Second Spanish Republic allowed women the right of passive suffrage with three women being elected. During the discussion to extend their right to active suffrage, the Radical Socialist Victoria Kent confronted the Radical Clara Campoamor. Kent argued that Spanish women were not yet prepared to vote and, since they were too influenced by the Catholic Church they would vote for right-wing candidates. Campoamor however pleaded for women's rights regardless of political orientation. Her point finally prevailed and, in the election of 1933, the political right won with the vote of citizens of any sex over 23. Both Campoamor and Kent lost their seats.
Youth suffrage, children's suffrage and suffrage in school
Democratic schools practice and support universal suffrage in school, which allows a vote to every member of the school, including students and staff. Such schools hold that this feature is essential for students to be ready to move into society at large.