The term suffrage is often used interchangeable with franchise. Nevertheless, they both mean the same thing. Suffrage or franchise is the right or privilege granted by the state to members of a community to participate in an election or a referendum. This means that anyone who has this right can vote in an election or take part in a referendum.
Since franchise is a political privilege, it means therefore that it can be granted and withdrawn at the discretion of the State. The process by which a person is granted the franchise is called a enfranchisement. On the other hand, disenfranchisement is the process by which the franchise is withdrawn.
Historical Development of the Franchise
There are five stages in the historical emergence of the suffrage (franchise). They include;
Immediate post-revolutionary stage
Mass electoral stage
Adult male suffrage stage
Stage of universal adult suffrage.
The pre-revolutionary stage refers to the period before the French 1777 and American 1789 revolutions which took place in the 18th century. At this stage, the right to vote was based mainly on citizenship. That is, only a citizen could vote. This was the practice in the Roman and Greek empires. In the Greek city-states, aliens, slaves and women lacked the capacity to vote.
Immediate Post – Revolutionary Stage
The second stage began with the French and American revolutions. The basic principles developed during these revolutions were liberty and equality. The citizens were equal in theory and the franchise was based on such requirements as property (i.e. land) and income.
A jobless or property-less person, for example, could not vote. The basic assumption was that a person who lacked economic independence was not capable of reasonable political judgements. Slaves were also excluded from voting because they had no property. It makes some sense. In the sense that, a man who depends on his parents for his upkeep or has no job would, for instance, not be joined to a woman in marriage. How will he fead his wife and children when he cannot take care of himself? This was the stage under which the Nigerian Clifford Constitution of 1922 was introduced which stipulated that any candidate contesting election must own property exceeding £100.
Mass Electoral Stage
The mass electorate stage was developed in reaction to the use of property and income qualifications. Several political philosophers argued that the people who paid taxes or rendered military service had a stake in the society equal to that of property owners. These philosophers further contended that education should even be a better requirement for the franchise than property since only the informed person can make a good choice.
Because of the several criticism of the property, it was abolished and the franchise was extended at this stage to all male adult citizens who were taxpayers.
As a result, university graduates and businessmen were granted multiple votes. France reached this stage in 1814 and Britain in 1918. The Richards Constitution of 1946, for the first time, granted the suffrage to all adult male citizens in Nigeria.
Adult Male Suffrage
At this stage of manhood suffrage, all important restrictions based on Economic and Social criteria were removed. In consequence, all male citizens who had reached a certain age were eligible to vote. France attained the state in 1848. The United States and several Western European countries reached this stage by the end of the 19th century.
Stage of Universal Adult Suffrage
The stage of universal adult suffrage is characterized by continual democratization of the suffrage. This stage is characterized by several developments which include the following.
The granting of women’s suffrage and the consequent extension of the franchise to all adults.
Reduction of the voting age.
Lowering of the age at which one may contest election.
Abolition of poverty and educational qualifications for elected public office holders.
Payment of salaries and allowances to legislators.
Nigeria reached the stage of universal adult suffrage in 1977 when the franchise was extended to women in the northern part of the country.
Qualifications / Requirements For Suffrage
The major qualifications for the suffrage in contemporary times include the following;
Age – Every country sets a minimum age at which a person is qualified to vote. this age of maturity to vote varies from country to country but 18 years seems to be the mean. Britain, Ghana, Nigeria, United States and Russia are examples of countries whose voting age is 18. For a few other countries, the minimum age is 16, 20 or 21.
Citizenship – Suffrage is usually restricted to citizens except in the former Soviet Union where non-citizens were enfranchised. But the fact that one is a citizen does not automatically confer the privilege on him as certain other requirements, such as registration for the vote, we still have to be satisfied.
Residence – A person should have resided in a place for a given period of time before he or she can be registered as a voter. Residential qualification is important so that a proper voters register may be compiled and checked, in good time, before election to prevent fraud.
Registration as Voter – To be eligible to vote in elections, an individual must have been duly registered as a voter and his name must appear on the electoral register.
Conviction for a Crime – A person who has been convicted of a serious offence or an offence against electoral laws, especially of bribery, are not eligible to vote in some countries.
Literacy – is a requirement for the franchise in some states in the United States of America. Literacy tests have been justified on the grounds that the voter must be able to understand political issues, make use of the ballot box and mark the ballot paper properly.
Lunacy and Idiocy – People who are lunatic or insane are usually disqualified from voting. Idiots, that is persons of extreme stupidity or silliness, also fall into this category.
Religious and Political Qualifications – Some States require that voters must satisfy certain religious and political conditions before they can vote. For example, the Mexican Constitution of 1917 barred priests from voting. In Britain, peers are disqualified from voting on ground that they may vote on a bill in the House of Lords.
Ownership of Property – Property qualifications have been abolished in several countries but property and tax requirements still exist in some states in the United States of America. Countries like France, Belgium and Egypt have bankruptcy laws which make a bankrupt person ineligible to vote.
Restricted or Limited Suffrage means that the right to vote is restricted only to male adults or people who possess certain special qualifications. During the apartheid era in South Africa, for example, the right to vote was granted only to the White (Afrikaner). The black people who constituted the majority of the population were disenfranchised.
In Restricted Suffrage, the right to vote or be voted for here is poorly restricted. Only the qualified voters are allowed to vote or stand to be voted for in the political system.
Merits of Restricted Franchise
The proponents of restricted franchise usually make the following arguments in support of it.
Opportunity of voting is better for the matured and infolmed minds.
Contesting election demands enough resources for proper planning, organisation and execution.
A few, that are contesting in this system, are better qualified than those of the universal suffrage.
Demerits of Restricted Franchise
Restricted suffrage has been criticized on the following grounds.
Many people due to limited political education are excluded from voting and been voted for in any election.
The opportunity of voting is not given to adults that are qualified.
Those elected are not popularly elected. The reason is because, it is not a reflection of the people’s choice.
The system is undemocratic and unconstitutional. The political rights of the people are denied.
As long as the majority are disenfranchised, their Interests in politics and on issues of the state are hurried.
The representatives in the system are only representing the interests of a few and not the majority.
Universal adult suffrage is sometimes called unlimited suffrage or unlimited franchise. It means that every citizen who has reached the age of maturity has the right to vote. In practice, the universal adult suffrage does not operate in any country. It is not possible to extend the franchise to everybody whether man or woman, sane or insane, criminal or law abiding, black or white, educated or uneducated. The closest team to the universal adult suffrage is the adult suffrage with some minor modifications.
This type of franchise is the most popular and universally acknowledged. It is constitutional and democratic. All qualified adults male and female are allowed to vote and be voted for in this system. However, there are still some qualifications to be met by individual before voting. The conditions or qualifications are not restrictive as in limited franchise / suffrage.
Merits of Unlimited Franchise
The proponents of unrestricted franchise usually make the following arguments in support of it.
There is a quality of voting. Every qualified adult has one vote. In fact, it is one man, one vote.
opportunity is created for qualified citizens to exercise their voting rights in the political system.
As far as the majority have exercised their franchise, the elected representatives is a reflection of popular choice.
This system does not allow for discrimination based on race, religion, sex or wealth.
It is more democratic and makes for full participation of the majority of the citizens in the decision-making process of the country.
This method makes for a stable legitimate government.
Demerits of Unlimited Franchise
Universal adult suffrage has been criticized on the following grounds.
The majority of the voters do not properly understand the manifesto and suitability or otherwise of the candidates before the elections. Lack of political education could work against the system.
The majority of the voters are illiterate and the possibility of voting blindly cannot be ruled out.
The involvement of many people in voting is capable of producing electoral malpractices, cheating, violence, etc.
It can bring about victimization and intimidation of political opponents in the system.
The elected representatives may not be through representatives of the people because, the voters were influenced and so they may voted wrongly.