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'The Polling' (detail), the third in William Hogarth’s four-part series, An Election, 1754.

'The Polling' (detail), the third in William Hogarth’s four-part series, An Election, 1754.

Who Should Have The Vote?

What electoral rights did Britons have in the century before 1918?

Large numbers of British people were once deliberately excluded from voting in parliamentary elections, because they were considered unfit to exercise the franchise. Some restrictions still apply in modern elections – foreign citizens, convicted prisoners and members of the House of Lords cannot vote – but the idea that all adults should have an equal right to elect their MPs, regardless of gender or wealth, has become so ingrained in the UK’s modern democratic culture that it barely seems to warrant comment. That is, at least, until recently, when mutterings emerged following the surprise decision in 2016 to leave the European Union. The fact that an entirely different approach was in operation for many centuries in Britain before 1918 and that its last vestiges remained in place until relatively recently is often overlooked.

As we recall the centenary of the 1918 Act, which enfranchised a limited number of women (those under 30 would have to wait another decade) and the 40 per cent of adult men who had previously been unable to vote, it seems timely to remind ourselves of the grounds on which people used to be excluded from going to the polls. The rationale – if that is the right word – underpinning the discrimination against women in earlier electoral systems has received considerable scholarly attention in recent years, but the hurdles facing men who aspired to become electors remain less well documented.

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