Academic Writing

How Changes in Voting Rights Illuminate Political Power Imbalances

Though the universal right to vote is currently undisputed, the journey to enfranchisement for all men and women above the age of 18 has been incrementally drawn out. The grudging extension of franchise reveals less an establishment fear of democracy but more a fear of the masses’ power to govern, a concern common to government systems that led to the development of representative democracy in lieu of direct democracy. In the Federalist Paper No. 51, James Madison argues against the tyranny of the majority, indicating the importance of having a system that removes direct power from the people. This led to the establishment of a representative democracy in the United States, a shared characteristic of the electoral system in the United Kingdom. However, the meaning of the term, “representative,” has been amended numerous times, each controversially fought for and having significant impacts on the development of the British political system. In fact, the course of the extension of franchise throughout British history reveals more so how the government has manipulated the process and push for enfranchisement to cohere with their personal goals. With each amendment in voting laws, franchise was only extended when the results of new voters in the pool could be safely manipulated by the extant political structures to suit those already in control. Recent discussions around franchise concern the lowering of qualifying age from 18 to 16, especially for referendums, which are unique instances of direct democracy. By evaluating the electoral process and franchise debates surrounding recent referendums, the effects and consequences of enfranchisement can be better understood and synthesized against the whole of British political history.

Theoretical Background

To effectively evaluate the purpose and effects of extending franchise in the United Kingdom, it is important to understand the role of representative government and the duality of communication between representatives and those who elect them. There are two primary schools of thought on how elective representatives should act in representing their electors, the “trustee” model and the “mandate” model. The trustee model assumes that the representative is an elite member of the population that can be trusted to act “to further the constituency’s long-run interests and the interests of the nation as a whole.” This model allows elected officials to have considerable leeway in the actions they take and positions they support. Alternatively, the mandate model suggests that when elected, a representative is fixed with a mandate to “follow the constituents’ instructions or expressed desires.” In the nineteenth century, the British aristocrats and politically elite much preferred the trustee model, and were hesitant to allow the masses to have much say in the course of politics, setting the scene for a country lacking enfranchisement. However, as franchise has been extended, the transition to more of a mandate model of representativeness is evident. Coordinately, as more and more sections of the population began asking for franchise, the government had to find a way to satisfy public demand while maintaining their power. The manipulation of ideology and voting rights by politicians connects to the instrumental view of ideology and the rational actor model. The instrumental view of ideology suggests that political parties only use ideology as a way to win votes. The rational actor model suggests that the rational goal of politicians is to stay in power; thus, all other goals of a politician’s job are overridden by the primary goal of winning elections and retaining their position. As such, politicians are motivated by a certain extent to extend franchise to new groups of voters, yet they must do so in a way that favors them.

Historical Background

The course of enfranchisement in British history is largely linked to its experience in the Industrial Revolution, and initial extensions of franchise emerged over conflicts between rural land-owners and the growing urban working class. As Moran explains, “class consequences of the creation of the first national system of industrial capitalism dominated the domestic history of Britain in the nineteenth century,” which is most saliently observed through the tumultuous history of the 1815 Corn Laws. The Corn Laws were protective tariffs set in place to support British farmworkers, but were criticized by the industrial working class for excessively elevating the price of grain. Those against the Corn Laws included the industrial bourgeoisie as well as the lower-classes of urban workers; thus, two disparate classes were united in their economic goal. The 1832 Reform Act further united these two classes. Recognizing the need for wider support among the lower classes, the bourgeoisie supported freer trade in the repeal of the Corn Laws and also helped push through representative government in the form of the 1832 Reform Act, which “extended parliamentary representation both to the new owners of property created by economic change and to the cities of the Industrial Revolution.” Though the Reform Act extended franchise, it was still done in a way that largely benefitted the bourgeoisie, and it would be nearly a century later before full enfranchisement was achieved. This pattern of incremental enfranchisement continued throughout the nineteenth century.

The next big improvement for electoral reform in the United Kingdom came in 1867 with the Representation of the People Act. This act extended the vote “to the most prosperous of male manual workers” by dropping restrictive property qualifications. As all urban male householders were now able to vote, this considerably changed the way politicians had to approach policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli introduced the act partially in reaction to the American Civil War in the 1860s and viewed the extension of franchise as a way to contain unrest. Introducing urban populations into the electorate forced a greater concentration on social conditions, education, and trade union rights—things that had largely gone unprotested by wealthy country families. In accordance with the rational actor model, the 1867 Reform Act necessarily changed the way politicians attempted to gain popular support, but rather than this being an example of the government trying to keep the people out of the electoral process, it instead reflects a fear of defeat by the other political parties. Thus, the extension of franchise can at this point be seen as a way of gaining popular support. By claiming to support electoral reform, using the instrumental view of ideology, the Tory and Conservative parties were able to stay in power in the UK government for a substantial span of time.

Another shock to the franchise status quo occurred directly following the aftermath of World War I in 1918, with women getting the right to vote, though under different qualifications that required them to be over the age of 30. Furthermore, women were required to be “ratepayers or married to ratepayers,” maintaining the property requirement from the nineteenth century. The 1918 general election following female enfranchisement saw the establishment of the two-party Labour and Conservative system still present in current British politics; moreover, the parties grew out of class distinction, as “the Conservatives established themselves as the party of property owners and the Labour Party presented itself as the party of the newly enfranchised working class.” Though the Conservative party was not as able to absorb the new members of the electorate as in previous extensions of franchise, the division by class conflict exemplifies the control that the government had over the increased number of voters, sorting them neatly into factions that cohered with the extant political structure. Furthermore, as the 1918 act came out of the end of World War I, it is yet another example of how enfranchisement was used by the government as a tool of manipulation and containment in times of turmoil. Women were given the same qualifications as men with the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, and the voting age for all groups was reduced to 18 in 1969, marking the most recent nation-wide electoral franchise reform until current debates on voting age.

Referendums and Enfranchisement

The two most recent and salient referendums in the UK government are the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence and the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. Both of these referendums proved divisive to their populations and have sparked debates about their electoral conduct. Under the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act of 2013, Scotland lowered the voting age to include 16- and 17-year-olds in the referendum vote for independence. After the referendum, held 18 September 2014, 55.3 per cent had voted to remain in the United Kingdom while 44.7 per cent had voted to leave. Copious research has been conducted as to the immediate effects of extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds for the referendum vote, with a survey from the University of Edinburgh finding “that those under 18 favored maintaining the union by 52 per cent to 30 per cent,” mirroring the overall result. However, it is the wider implications that such an action could have that are important to analyze, as there has been a noted increase in the discussion and debate of lowering the voting age in both Scotland and the United Kingdom in general. In fact, the Smith Commission of 2014 “called specifically for the UK Parliament to devolve power to lower the voting age to sixteen in time for the May 2016 Scottish Parliament election.” The Scotland Act 1998 declares the voting age as a reserved power, yet the Smith Commission asked for complete devolution of power to amend electoral qualifications to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Though the temporary reduction of voting age acted as a trial run for Scotland before campaigning for greater power over electoral reform, it has led to greater calls in the United Kingdom for similar inclusion of younger voters. For example, many questioned the United Kingdom’s decision not to follow Scotland’s precedent and lower the voting age to 16 years old for the referendum to leave the European Union, especially as the results were so split along the age groups. When polled, under-18s seemed to “fit the trend of younger people preferring to stay,” but it is difficult to make any decisive statement as hardly any statistical analyses use data from 16- and 17-year-olds. In general, there tends to be a paradox between the beliefs and trends of young voters and their ability to turnout and truly impact the result, as in the Brexit referendum, “younger people voted overwhelmingly for Remain, but were fewer in number, dampening the overall impact of age.” Thus, it is difficult to determine the validity of some groups’ outrage about the lack of extension of franchise to younger voters in the 2016 referendum, but analyzing the data is not a fruitless exercise.

With the Scottish Parliament’s call to devolve electoral reform power in order to lower the voting age, it is more than simply a response to public requests for such action. If that were so, there would likely be equal discussion of the extension of franchise to those in prison, yet that debate does not appear in the Smith Commission. Additionally, the proposal of devolved reform powers is contingent on the “requirement that changes be passed by a supermajority comprising at least a two-thirds majority of the Parliament,” a requirement that would be bypassed for the voting age decision. Though ostensibly such action would “protect against one-party agendas dominating electoral reform and manipulating change to the incumbent government’s advantage,” the institution of such reform at that time is evidence of exactly such exploitation of franchise. This contradiction demonstrates the manipulation of franchise when it is deemed suitable by the political elites. As the governing body—even beyond just the party in power—franchise can be given or taken away nearly indiscriminately, making it necessary for those without franchise to pledge loyalty to whoever offers it. Moreover, as there is a relative consensus between the political parties on the issue of devolved electoral reform powers, it is unlikely that the campaign will receive thorough debating, allowing it to be further shaped and exploited in whichever ways best suit those in political power.


The idea that the extension of franchise is a process controlled and affected solely by those in power is faulty in its assumption of a complete top-down model. While it is true that enfranchisement necessitates a concession by political elites, it also inherently catalyzes social and political change in that it forces the governmental structures to acknowledge evolving concerns with each new addition to the electorate. The referendums for Scottish independence and UK membership in the EU and their divergent approaches to enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds illustrate the effect that such actions can have. Referendums offer a form of direct democracy that is unseen in the other functions of representative government, making the role of the electorate even more important. The temporary extension of franchise for the 2014 Scottish referendum for independence added momentum to calls for full reduction of voting age both in Scotland and in the UK in general. However, further proposals to reform the electoral process were pushed through on a fast-track process that undermines the importance of electoral reform by making it a tool of the partisan government to further its own agenda. Indeed this is shown to be true of the historical path of extension of franchise to voters in the United Kingdom, wherein extension is less about the giving of rights and more about the manipulation of them. The course of complete British enfranchisement has been admittedly slow, with each incremental relaxing of regulation indicating a change in the socioeconomic atmosphere of the time. By controlling the extension of franchise, the government has both incredible power and responsibility, but the incremental nature of enfranchisement over the years is due more to a careful equilibrium between the desires of the population and the goals of the political parties. The extension of franchise, though appearing to be a right, is in fact a tool used to contain unrest, rally support, and control the population in accordance to specific political agendas.

poli sciSarah Burk