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Since suffrage (the right to vote) can be the key to political power, it has been contentious since representative institutions came into being. The original county franchise seems to have included all freemen. But an Act of Henry VI's reign in 1429 declared that ‘great, outrageous and excessive numbers of people’ were voting at elections, and went on to limit the franchise to freeholders with land worth 40 shillings a year. This remained the franchise until 1832. The issue became lively after the Civil War. At the Putney army debates, Cromwell and Ireton opposed Rainborough and the radicals who pressed for a great extension of the franchise: where would it end, demanded Cromwell, if men ‘who have no interest but the interest of breathing’ were given the vote?

In parliamentary boroughs the franchise had always varied but there were four main groups—corporation, freeman, burgage, and inhabitant householder. They ranged from Westminster and Coventry with thousands of voters, to Gatton, a rotten borough with two voters. The Scottish representation was extremely narrow, before and after the Union of 1707.

In the 18th cent. arguments for extending the franchise were heard with increasing frequency. Wilkes argued in 1776 that ‘the meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’ was entitled to a vote, but nobody supported him. From 1832 onwards, however, a number of measures, enlarged the suffrage to full democracy. By the Great Reform Act the urban franchise was made uniform at the £10 householder level, and in the counties the £50 copyholder was brought in to join the freeholders. The Scottish electorate rose from some 5,000 to 65,000. Radicals were far from satisfied and within a few years manhood suffrage was one of the six points of the charter. It was strenuously opposed, Macaulay insisting in 1842 that universal suffrage was ‘utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilization’. The second Reform Act of 1867 moved one step closer, giving the vote to borough householders, and the 1884 Act, by extending the same franchise to the counties, brought the total electorate to well over 5 million.

By the later 19th cent. the campaign to give the vote to women was under way, though they had to wait until 1918, and then were given the vote only if they were over 30. The electorate was more than doubled and, at 22 million, was fast approaching that universal suffrage Macaulay had feared. Women under 30 gained the vote in 1929 and in 1969 the inclusion of persons between 18 and 21 brought in another 3 million new voters. The vote is not available to convicted felons or certified lunatics, but is granted to resident citizens of the Republic of Eire. Hereditary peers, deprived of their seats in the House of Lords in 1999, were granted the right to vote and to stand for election to the House of Commons.

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