Could our Ancestors Vote?
Well the answer to that question is depends who they were and where they resided.
In the UK, just about every man and woman over the age of 18 has the vote, and they can use it to elect the people they want to govern them. This hasn’t always been the case, many battles have been fought over the centuries to get voting to where it is in the UK today.
The first Parliament sat in 1265, to which two Knights from each county and two representatives from each borough were called to attend Parliament at Westminster, the beginnings of the Parliament that we have today. By 1430 Parliament was being consulted on all matters of taxation and only owners of land worth over 40 shillings (£1,458 at today’s value) were eligible to elect representatives.
Rotten boroughs were one of the curiosities of the British electoral system, they were a product of a system that did not want change, where fathers passed on constituencies (and the power as a MP that went with this) to their sons as if they were property (which many saw them as), where some rotten boroughs were so bizarre that they beggared belief and where the very few who voted could not vote for whom they wanted to due to the lack of a secret ballot or challenging candidate.
Three of the most famous Rotten Boroughs were:-
Dunwich, a coastal village in Suffolk which by 1832 at almost disappeared due to coastal erosion, but its 32 voters returned 2 MP’s to Westminster.
Old Sarum, a once thriving medieval town, but by 1832 it had 7 voters living in 3 houses, returning 2 MP’s.
Gatton in Surrey had 7 voters and returned 2 MP’s.
It was apparrent that such a system was ripe for reform and the 1832 Reform Act disenfranchised 56 constituencies labelled as “rotten boroughs”. After the act was passed, the voters who lived in these former constituencies had to vote as part of a county electorate that better reflected the population increase in the United Kingdom. At the same time the 1832 Reform Act extended the right to vote to most middle-class men, women of all classes and working class men still did not have the vote.
The 1867 Reform Act further enfranchised 1,500,000 men which meant that all male urban householders and male lodgers paying £10 rent a year for unfurnished accommodation got the right to vote. The act all but doubled the electorate.
In 1872 the Ballot Act was passed which for the first time gave the rights to a secret ballot away from prying eyes, this was a major extension of Democracy in Britain. Though we take voting in secret as a right now, there were many in the 19th Century who did not support it, as they felt that property owners and employers had a right to influence the way people voted.
The 1884 Reform Act gave the counties the same voting rights as the boroughs had, that all male adult householders over the age of 21 and men who rented unfurnished lodgings to the value of £10 a year would be able to vote. The electorate after this act stood at 5,500,000, although an estimated 40% of all men still did not have the right to vote as a result of their status within society.
So in a matter of 52 years democracy had been extended to around 60% of the adult male population, but not at this stage to women
The 1918 Representation of the People Act was the start of female suffrage in Great Britain. The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons (385 for to 55 against), an element of support that surprised the suffragist movements. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave women of property over the age of 30 the right to vote, not all women, therefore, could vote, but it was a major start.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act increased the electorate to about 21 million, 8.4 million were women. Therefore the act gave women a 40% ‘stake’ in elections. About 22% of women 30 years of age and above were excluded from the right to vote as they were not property owners. These were women who were invariably working class.
Having witnessed in one act a jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore, politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.
Finally with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act in 1928 the voting age for women was changed to over 21 regardless of property ownership, finally women were on an equal platform with men on the right to vote.
Where do we go in the future, Electoral reform doesn’t come without some cost and there will always be those who fear change, but if our ancestors had not challenged the system over the last 100 years, then we would still be beholden to those who own property on who we got to represent us.