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date: 22 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

The historical evolution of the right to vote offers three observations. First, almost all groups have seen their voting rights challenged at some point in time, and almost all political movements have sought to exclude some other group from voting. Second, reforms towards suffrage extension are varied—from the direct introduction of universal (male) suffrage to a trickle down process of enfranchising a small group at a time. Third, the history of franchise extension is a history of expansions and contractions.

Much of the literature on the evolution of the right to vote builds on the following question: Why would a ruling elite decide to extend the suffrage to excluded groups who have different interests in the level of redistribution and the provision of public goods? Two competing theories dominate the debate: Bottom-up or demand theories emphasizing the role of revolutionary threats, and top-down or supply theories, explaining franchise extensions as the outcome of the strategic interactions of those in power and elites in the democratic opposition.

A second question addresses the choice of a particular path of franchise extension, asking what explains different strategies and, in particular, the role of their accompanying institutional reforms.

In contrast to the literature on the inclusion of the lower classes, women’s suffrage has been traditionally presented as the conquest of the suffragette movement. Current research, however, departs from this exceptionalism of female suffrage and shows certain consensus in explaining women’s suffrage as a political calculus, in which men willingly extend the franchise when they expect to benefit from it. Arguments differ though in the specific mechanisms that explain the political calculus.

Finally, the literature on compulsory voting addresses the estimations of its impact on turnout; whether it translates into more efficient campaigning, improved legitimacy, and better representativity; and ultimately its effects on policies.

Keywords: voting rights, franchise expansion, universal suffrage, revolutionary threat, elite conflict, women’s suffrage, mandatory voting

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