In the United States, voting is almost something we take for granted today. In 2016, almost half of eligible voters, over 100 million people, didn’t vote. Since this country was founded, the ability to participate in the government has been a constant uphill battle and the United Kingdom has known the same struggle. Hundreds of years ago, the only voice that mattered was the king until the Magna Carta opened the decision-making process up to the barons and Parliament formed. The members of this parliament were chosen by the King until 1265 when Members of Parliament started to be elected from the various counties.
However, even at this time, it was an incredibly small number of people who were able to elect these representatives, who were referred to as the “Knights of the Shire”. The Knights of the Shire Act in 1432 was the first parliamentary legislation to establish who was enfranchised to vote for the members. The act gave the right to vote to “Forty Shilling Freeholders”, meaning that only owners of real property who paid taxes to the Crown of at least 40 shillings per year (roughly £2,500 in today’s money). This remained the status quo for another 400 years, even after the passage of the Bill of Rights 1869 that provided for regular parliamentary elections. A survey from 1780 revealed that the number of enfranchised voters amounted to only 3% of the United Kingdom’s population.
The Reform Act 1832 (also known as the Representation of the People Act) was the first piece of legislation to expand voting rights in the United Kingdom. It firmly established that men above the age of 21 who were freeholders of property could vote and standardized this franchise across all boroughs. However, it specifically stated that only men could vote, laying down a statutory bar disenfranchising the nation’s women. A further Reform Act in 1867 enfranchised householders, expanding the category of eligible voters to include the working classes for the first time, while the Reform Act 1884 established this for both municipal boroughs and county constituencies. Combined, the acts pushed the number of voters to 6 million.
In the 19th Century, the Women’s Suffrage movement got started and kept political pressure on Parliament through non-violent and violent means until the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918. The Act didn’t go far enough into establishing the right to vote for all women as it still required them to own property, but it did do away with the property requirements for men, giving the right to vote for all men regardless of race or class. The Representation of the People Act 1928 did away with the property requirements for women, finally opening the door to all persons 21 years of age or older.
The final major piece of legislation to expand the franchise came with the Representation of the People Act 1969, which (much like the 26th Amendment in the US) extended the right to vote to all persons aged 18 to 20. Later reforms have affected the election process, establishing the types of elections (for Parliament, local, and European Parliament), reforming the process, lowering the age for candidates to 18, and more. An attempt was made to pass a bill lowering the voting age even further to 16, but it didn’t succeed. Interestingly, in 2012, the Scottish Parliament successfully lowered the voting age to 16 for persons voting in Scottish and local elections. Scottish Parliament further enfranchised all foreign nationals living in Scotland to participate in the country’s elections in 2020.
While other countries in the United Kingdom have not quite gone to the level that Scotland has, it has been quite the progression of voting rights from the Medieval Period to the present.