Universal suffrage

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Ballot box marked with suffrage universel (French for universal suffrage), over which a lion watches. Paris Monument to the Republic (1883). Bronze picture by Léopold Morice .

The universal suffrage is a key feature of modern democracies . This means that all citizens basically have the same right to vote . Nevertheless, in all democracies there are reasons for exclusion for certain groups of people. For example, the voter or elected person must be a citizen of the country in question and have a fixed minimum age.

Electoral principles

In addition to universal suffrage, the principles of free, secret, equal and direct (direct) election apply to democratic elections . In many democracies, the election is personal, while in other democracies a voter who cannot go to the polling station on election day can appoint a person of their trust to vote. These democratic legal principles are the subject of national constitutions , international law , international treaties or the European Convention on Human Rights .

Closely related to the requirement of general election is equality of choice . If the principle of universal suffrage states that “everyone” can vote, equality determines that every voter can cast the same number of votes and that those votes have the same count. A non-general right to vote is the census right to vote , in which only those who pay a certain amount of taxes can vote. A class franchise means that the choice is indeed general, but that the voters are divided into classes. If there are far more voters in one class than in another, the election is unequal. The right to plural vote is also unequal , in which one voter has more votes than another, for example because he has reached a certain old age or has a university degree.

Restrictions on universal suffrage

Today, universal suffrage is a matter of course in most countries. This even applies to non-democratic countries with unfree elections. But even in countries that are seen as democratic, not all residents are allowed to vote. One of the reasons for this is that some residents are not ready to vote.

The most fundamental restriction is likely to be the exclusion of residents without citizenship. In some cases, foreigners who have lived for a longer period of time are allowed to vote at the municipal level because this level is not linked to state sovereignty. Conversely, it cannot be taken for granted that citizens living abroad may vote.

Other possible restrictions:

  • You can only vote from a certain age (depending on the state and electoral body, usually between around 16 and 25 years of age). For example, only those who are at least 18 years old may participate in an election to the German Bundestag .
  • The right to stand for election (eligibility) has special hurdles in many countries
  • Further reasons for exclusion from voting rights are:

Historical development

Already in antiquity there were different forms of elections , for example in the Attic democracy , which, however, did not include women, slaves and other classes. In the course of the Middle Ages , the citizenships of the larger cities and their guilds were the first to gain more extensive voting rights than the rest of the population.

Universal (male) suffrage was first introduced in the United States. This was fundamentally guaranteed in the American constitution of 1787, but (until around 1830) was partly limited by the specific right to vote in the American states. The treatment of African Americans with regard to the right to vote in the USA must also be viewed in relative terms.

In the past, the right to vote was often linked to an electoral census , that is, it only existed from a certain income or wealth . One of the first European countries (after Switzerland and France in 1848) with universal (male) suffrage was the North German Confederation (1867) and then the German Empire (1871). In Great Britain, on the other hand, the parliamentary system had existed since the 17th century at the latest, but it wasn't until 1918 that universal suffrage was enforced. Before 1918, the right to vote in Great Britain was essentially made dependent on the economic situation or membership of the nobility . As a result, only about 52% of men actually had the right to vote by 1918.

Since the 20th century, women’s suffrage became established in many countries , especially around 1918. Only then did elections become general in the modern sense.

See also


  • Margaret Lavinia Anderson: Apprenticeship in Democracy. Elections and Political Culture in the German Empire . Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-515-09031-5 .
  • Udo Hermann: The right to vote from an economic point of view in: WISU - das Wirtschaftsstudium Heft 8–9 / 2017, S. 967–973.
  • Dieter Nohlen: Suffrage and the party system . (= UTB, vol. 1527). 3. Edition. Leske and Budrich, Opladen 2000, ISBN 3-8252-1527-X .
  • Hedwig Richter : Modern Elections. A history of democracy in Prussia and the USA in the 19th century. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2017.
  • Rosanvallon, Pierre: Le sacre du citoyen. Histoire du suffrage universel en France, Paris 1992.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Right to vote: 6 million Americans excluded from voting. In: Berliner Morgenpost , November 2, 2016, accessed on August 31, 2017.