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date: 21 August 2017

Suffrage Rights

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


It is a generally accepted proposition that suffrage is now “almost universal” and that universal suffrage is in place “virtually everywhere.” Almost all countries that have any kind of elections recognize universal voting rights. However, the road from representative government to mass democracy has been neither steady nor homogenous for all countries. During most of the 19th century, in countries with elections, the right to vote was confined to adult male citizens who owned property, earned certain income, or paid taxes. As of 1900, one country (New Zealand) had fully universal suffrage while 17 enfranchised all males. Of the countries in which the first qualifications gave the right to vote to all independent males, suffrage was subsequently restricted in most of them. Greece, Mexico, and El Salvador were the only countries with broad male suffrage as of 1847. Also, the extension of the franchise to women came very late compared to universal manhood suffrage.1 The first country in which women could vote under the same requirements as men was New Zealand in 1893 (followed by Australia in 1901, Finland in 1907, and Norway in 1913). Still, as of 1950, only half of the countries with any kind of suffrage enfranchised women on the same basis as men (Przeworski, 2009).

The historical evolution of the right to vote offers three observations. First, almost all social groups have seen their voting rights challenged at some point in time: workers, peasants, blacks, landowners, the bourgeoisie, artisans, etc. Likewise, almost all political movements—agrarian parties, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and even the suffragette movement—have sought to exclude some other group from voting. Second, the reforms towards suffrage extension have followed different paths in different countries. Some countries jumped directly to universal (male) suffrage, while others followed a trickle-down process. Some countries relaxed the requirements to have the right to vote while others combined them with electoral reforms, like the adoption of proportional representation or the creation of several chambers. Third, the history of franchise extension is a history of expansions and contractions, with a number of key forces promoting the expansion of the franchise coexisting with forces that opposed or resisted a broader franchise.2 Factors favoring the expansion of the franchise include the mobilization on the part of the disfranchised, the rise of competitive political parties, the growth of cities and industry, as well as the demands of war and preparedness for war. Among the opposing forces one finds class tensions and partisan interests that manifested in ideological convictions and political theories that linked the health of the state to a narrow franchise.

In order to facilitate the exposition, the framework of analysis conceives society as consisting of two groups: the political elite and the disenfranchised group. Some theories associate each group with a homogeneous class with common interests, while others emphasize the conflictual differences within each group. Who is the political elite and who are the disenfranchised groups depend on the country and the moment in history. Elite groups are commonly associated with landowners, and agrarian and conservative parties but may also include capitalists, liberals, and the bourgeoisie. Disenfranchised groups usually refer to workers, peasants, women, and minorities. Nevertheless, all theories have in common that groups within the elite and (some) disenfranchised groups have opposite preferences over the issue of the political institutions, in many cases represented by the degree of redistribution and the provision of public goods.

The Section “Arguments Against Universal Suffrage” introduces a classification of arguments against universal suffrage. Then the article focuses on focus on the evolution of the franchise, divided into two questions. The first question addresses the decision of extending the franchise. In particular, it presents the theories that try to explain why a ruling elite would decide to extend the franchise to excluded groups who may have conflicting interests in the use of government (see Section “Theories of franchise extension”). The second question refers to the choice of a particular path of franchise extension, asking what explains the choice of different strategies in extending the franchise (see Section “Strategies of franchise extension”). The last two sections present the presumed exceptionalism of female suffrage (see Section “Women suffrage”), and the research on compulsory voting (see Section “Compulsory voting”).

Two caveats: First, this article repeatedly refers to extensions of the franchise or expansions of the right to vote, which should not be confused with democratization or regime transitions.3 Those topics require articles of their own. Second, the focus is on theories that try to explain expansions and contractions of the franchise as well as the choice of electoral institutions, rather than on a historical recount of the evolution of the right to vote, which can be found in many of the articles and books included in the references.

Finally, part of the expansion of voting rights is explained by a “trickle-down” process: Policy-driven industrial development increased industrial productivity and industrial wages; given the presence of wealth and income requirements, these policies increased the incomes of workers, effectively enfranchising them over time.4

Arguments against Universal Suffrage

Traditional arguments for universal suffrage based on natural rights were easily abandoned because they were theoretically weak and, more importantly, politically and rhetorically problematic, as “there was no way to argue that voting was a right or a natural right without opening a Pandora’s box” (Keyssar, 2000, p. 11). The need to establish who had the right to vote and who did not opened the possibility of excluding certain groups from political participation. As a result, almost all social groups have seen their natural right to vote challenged at some moment in history, including workers, peasants, blacks, Indians, Jews, landowners, Monarchists, Catholics, artisans, and the bourgeoisie, among others. It is also difficult to find political movements that have not proposed a restricted suffrage: Agrarian parties, conservatives, liberals, socialist and even suffragette movements have sought to exclude other groups from the right to vote. However, the arguments offered to deprive certain groups of their voting rights have changed from place to place and over time.

Colomer (2001) classifies the arguments for restricting the franchise into three categories, depending on whether the ruling elite saw disenfranchised groups as unnecessary or redundant, manipulable, or a threat.

The first category includes arguments based on the redundancy of these groups. Such arguments appealed to the “innocuousness” of the exclusion, as the interests of those excluded were already virtually represented by those who already held the right to vote. These arguments were frequently used by those against granting the right to vote to women.5

Manipulable constituency arguments represent a second category of arguments to deprive certain groups of their voting rights. These arguments emphasized the hazard of giving the right to vote to people with a lack of political understanding who could be easily controlled or deceived by unscrupulous politicians, the church, local powerholders, their landlords and patrons, or socialist, communist, and union leaders. These arguments can be easily found along the whole political spectrum.

Finally, a third category of arguments saw disenfranchised groups as a threat to the interests of the incumbent elite. Fears regarding private property were a prominent argument, hence the use of wealth as a restriction on voting rights. But other requirements, like literacy or race, were used when they better served the purpose of identifying the group to be excluded. It is interesting to note an important distinction between the hazard of voting by illiterates and the threat of voting by the poor. While the former could be avoided by education (hence the emphasis of many leftish leaders to put public education and mandatory schooling before voting rights), the latter required a certain degree of social and economic homogeneity.

The literature on franchise extension builds on this third category of arguments based on the conflicting interests between (factions of) the incumbent elite and disenfranchised groups.

Theories of Franchise Extension

The 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century was a period of intense political and economic reform. Many countries experienced large-scale changes in the distribution of voting rights, moving from systems where the suffrage was the privilege of a narrow elite to universal manhood suffrage or, in some cases, to universal suffrage. This observation has generated a rich literature addressing a puzzling question: why those who monopolize political power would ever decide to put their interests or values at risk by sharing it with others? Why would those who hold political rights in the form of suffrage decide to extend these rights to anyone else? While few perhaps would argue that one factor could explain all instances of franchise extension, the extension of the right to vote has become a question of whether the franchise was “conquered,” a “working-class triumph,” or “granted” as an “elite conquest” (Collier, 1999; Przeworski, 2009).

On the one hand, bottom-up or demand theories (see Section “Revolutionary threats theories”) base their arguments on collective pressures from previously excluded groups (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2000). According to these theories, franchise extensions are the product of pressure and demands of excluded groups who manage to extract the right to vote from a reluctant elite. On the other hand, top-down or supply theories (see Section “Divided incumbent elite theories”) base their arguments on the strategic calculations of some groups within the political elite, who find in the disenfranchised an ally to implement their policies (Lizzeri & Persico, 2004; Llavador & Oxoby, 2005). These latter theories explain franchise extensions as the outcome of the strategic interactions of those in power and the elites in the democratic opposition. According to these theories, revolutionary threats and social unrest played a secondary role in the process of franchise extension.

Both bottom-up and top-down theories link the industrial revolution and the process of democratization (an argument already present in Toynbee (1884)). But while revolutionary threat theories see in industrialization the origin of the revolutionary threat by the creation and organization of a working class, divided elite theories see in the industrial revolution a change in the role of government.

A third group of theories explain franchise expansions as a quid pro quo (see Section “Quid pro quo theories”), with the elites accepting the eventual distributional consequences in exchange for the economic or political benefits extensions would bring. These benefits may have included committed soldiers (Ticchi & Vindigni, 2008), higher productivity (Justman & Gradstein, 1999), or more settlers and workers in those states where labor was scarce (Engerman & Sokoloff, 2005).

While the literature on extensions of the suffrage is by now extensive, the evidence in support of the different theories consists mostly of narratives of particular historical processes or of analysis of their fiscal consequences. Empirical analyses of the different theories are scarce and inconclusive.6 Future research should aim at developing better measures of the threat of revolution. Also, estimations should be able to distinguish social unrest as a revolutionary threat from social unrest as a signal of the strength of potential allies for some groups of the political elite, as it has been argued for the suffragette movement. Finally, it is possible that different theories are better suited for different experiences of franchise extension, with a strategic elite explaining early and restricted franchise extensions, while the working class fought its way in the “final push” for universal manhood.

Bottom-Up Theories: Extensions of the Franchise Respond to Revolutionary Threats by the Excluded

The role of social conflict in democratization has a long tradition.7 According to the classical explanation, rights were conquered by the excluded by threatening a revolution. Extensions of the franchise were hence a response of the incumbent holders of rights to revolutionary threats by the excluded.

Much of the recent literature builds on the Meltzer and Richard (1981) political economy model, where society is divided along class lines with a “rich” political elite and a “poor” disenfranchised group. The role of government is purely redistributive and the share of income redistributed is decided by majority voting. In this framework, an extension of the franchise implies a poorer decisive (median) voter and hence higher taxes and more redistribution. Naturally, the political elite opposes any extension of the franchise, which is forced upon them by the threat of revolution.

Therefore, the decision to concede voting rights to poorer citizens responds to a type of calculus of franchise extension by the ruling elite: Extensions are to be expected when there is a class conflict about redistribution, and the expected cost of a revolution (the probability of revolution times the elite’s economic cost of a revolution) is higher than the cost of franchise extension, that is the cost of redistribution.

Two opposing implications follow from this analysis. On one hand, social homogeneity or higher equality between enfranchised and disenfranchised groups should make franchise extensions more likely, as it lowers the cost of redistribution (Sokoloff & Engerman, 2000; Engerman & Sokoloff, 2005).8 On the other hand, revolutionary threats are costly processes for the disenfranchised, since they require social mobilization and the commitment to following through on the threat. Therefore, if, as presumed, the threat technology has large initial costs for the commitment to the threat, and therefore exhibits increasing returns to scale, large disagreements between the two groups are more likely to result in franchise expansions, for large disagreements may be necessary to mobilize disenfranchised groups (Conley & Temimi, 2001). In conclusion, while higher inequality between groups increases the cost of redistribution and reduces the benefits of franchise extension, it also augments the probability of a revolutionary threat, increasing the benefits of franchise extension.

Acemoglu and Robinson (2000) present a revitalized version of the revolutionary threat argument. In particular, they offer an explanation of why the elite opts for extending the franchise rather than for redistribution under the existing political institutions. They emphasize that while current transfers do not ensure future transfers, the extension of the franchise changes future political equilibria and acts as a commitment device to redistribution. Therefore, if the threat may die out, the promise of future redistribution while maintaining political power would not be credible, as the ruling elite would cease the concessions once the threat evaporates. Hence, political elites were forced to extend the franchise to ensure that redistribution would stay when the heat of social unrest faded away. That is, extending the franchise acted as a commitment device to future redistribution and prevented social unrest. There are several extensions of the original model. Acemoglu and Robinson (2006, chap. 8) and Xi (2014) incorporate a middle class group that shares with the rich political elite an interest in preventing a revolt. In these versions, the political elite may decide to extend the franchise to the middle class to obtain an ally in fighting the threat of revolution, reducing the probability of a successful revolt. Once the middle class is enfranchised, the theory returns to the commitment device and threat of revolution arguments between the new political elite and the disenfranchised poor. Jack and Lagunoff (2006) present a dynamic version that also generates the possibility of gradual franchise expansions.

These theories are built upon a conflict along class or redistributive lines and make fundamentally important the understanding of the relative strength and the organization of the working class (Collier, 1999, p. 4). Finally, they implicitly adhere to the argument that suffrage contractions and women’s suffrage entail different theoretical considerations. “Since extending the voting rights to women does not have major consequences for redistribution from the rich to the poor, social values rather than redistributive motives should be more important” (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2000, p. 1186).

Top-Down Theories: Extensions of the Franchise Respond to a Divided Incumbent Elite Looking for Potential Allies Among Disenfranchised Groups

Top-down theories build on the observation that threat or social unrest required by the previous explanations was absent in many instances of franchise reform. Instead, they focus the attention on internal conflicts among the elites, who are divided on the uses of public revenue and find in the disenfranchised potential supporters for their policies. These theories differ from the traditional political competition theories that envision power-motivated politicians who extend the franchise expecting votes in return (see a discussion in Collier (1999) and the criticism in Acemoglu & Robinson (2000)).

The representative model combines a divided political elite on the use of government and the public provision of goods, with a focus on public interest programs rather than purely redistributive policies. These two characteristic features set these models apart from Acemoglu and Robinson’s representative model of bottom-up theories presented in Section “Revolutionary threats theories”. In Lizzeri and Persico (2004) elites voluntarily extend the franchise in order to steer office-motivated politicians away from causes serving narrow constituencies and into programs of public utility. If these programs are valuable, a majority of the elite favors an extension of the franchise that extends the electoral base and forces politicians to garner support through the provision of public goods with diffuse benefits, helping to “reduce the pervasiveness of patronage and to coax the machinery of government to serve the public purpose” (Lizzeri & Persico, 2004, p. 709).

In Llavador and Oxoby (2005), the elite is divided in an economic cleavage that captures the different uses of public policies. Although the economic dividing issue is traditionally associated with the rural-urban cleavage, historically it has taken many different forms, like unification vs. decentralization, or free-trade vs. protectionism.9 The analysis underscores the role of political parties representing the two factions of the elite: landowners and capitalists. With conflicting interests, the parties representing the elite look to disenfranchised groups with similar interests for the political support necessary to implement their policies. It is this type of alignment or misalignment of policy preferences between groups among the elite and disenfranchised groups that provides an explanation for extensions and restrictions of the franchise. The division of the political elite and the alignment of interests between one group of the elite and a disenfranchised group explain franchise extensions. A unified or homogenous elite results in no extension of the franchise. In the presence of a conflict among the elite, liberal parties, who would align with urban workers but feared that peasants would support conservative parties, implement a limited extension of the franchise. Finally, conservative parties either oppose any extension of the franchise, or, if implementing an extension, promote universal (male) suffrage, expecting an alignment of interests between landowners and peasants. The argument relies on the economic nature of franchise restrictions that impede conservative parties from excluding urban workers while enfranchising peasants.

Quid Pro Quo Theories: Extensions of the Franchise Respond to a Quid Pro Quo Offer to Newly Enfranchised Voters, Soldiers, New Settlers, or Women in Factories

A third group of theories sees the provision of the right to vote as a political concession that elites may voluntarily offer in order to attain mass cooperation in times of adversity.10 The argument manifests in several forms. First, the observed relation between mass warfare and the extension of voting rights is explained as elites voluntarily conceding extensions of the franchise in order to induce men to put effort in fighting mass wars, which appeared in Europe after the French Revolution (Ticchi & Vindigni, 2008; Keyssar, 2000). Secondly, the observed relation between women’s suffrage and their incorporation into factories is explained in similar terms. This argument can be made in more general terms, with the need for higher labor productivity for the industrialization period and with the gains from newly enfranchised groups outweighing the costs of higher redistribution (Justman & Gradstein, 1999). Finally, the dynamics of frontier settlement and their scarcity of labor is another instance of the ruling elites accepting the eventual distributional consequences in exchange for the economic benefits that extensions would bring (Engerman & Sokoloff, 2005).

Strategies of Franchise Extension

Whether the extension of the franchise was the result of a divided elite or of the revolutionary threat by excluded groups, the incumbent elite had to decide the actual strategy to implement such an extension. Hence, a no less relevant question is whether extensions were accompanied by other institutional reforms.

The analysis of the different strategies of franchise extension requires an expanded institutional setting available to the ruling elite, considering not only legal requirements for access to voting rights but also changes in institutional regulations, particularly the electoral rules. Colomer (2001) identifies three strategy models: the “Anglo model,” the “Latin model,” and the “Nordic model.”

The “Anglo model” is characterized by the enfranchisement of small voting groups through a slow, lengthy process that guarantees a smooth and controlled process.11 Incumbents establish electoral and party system rules, like plural vote, single-member districts, and majoritarian voting rules, seeking to prevent the formation of new alternative majorities. The newly enfranchised minority groups are “forced” to collaborate with one of the two existing large parties, ensuring stability and significant control of the policy agenda by incumbents. The smoothness of this path is reinforced by “additional devices that distort representation in favor of traditional incumbent voters or that discourage electoral participation” (Colomer, 2001, p. 38). This strategy results in stable transitions towards universal suffrage.

The “Latin model” is characterized by a sudden jump to universal manhood under single-winner electoral rules, involving the incorporation of large masses of illiterate voters. High electoral unpredictability and instability, combined with weak or not-well-organized parties, provoke fears among incumbent voters and rulers, often leading to conflict and the search for authoritarian reactions.

Finally, the “Nordic model” combines sudden enfranchisement of a very large electorate, typically at the initiative of the political right, with the adoption of proportional representation or similar institutional safeguards. These safeguards guarantee moderate parties a decisive role and pre-reform incumbent parties the expectation to participate in parliamentary coalitions. Representative cases include Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

These different strategies describe paths of franchise expansion but do not address the reasons that drove each country to adopt a particular strategy and not another, especially given that they imply very different consequences.

A possible explanation is found in the social composition of different countries and, in particular, in the conflict among elite groups and their possible alliances with the disenfranchised (see Section “Divided incumbent elite theories”). In Llavador and Oxoby (2005), liberal parties (representing capitalists’ interests) push for a restricted extension of the franchise that falls short of universal manhood suffrage, as peasants would align with landlords if given the right to vote. On the other hand, agrarian or conservative parties, if they opt for extending the franchise, choose universal manhood so that the peasantry would compensate for the enfranchisement of urban workers. This view produces a classification of “types” of countries that shares certain similarities with Colomer’s strategy models.

There are, however, important differences in the historical evidence associated with each category. Type III countries in Llavador and Oxoby (2005), related to the Anglo model, typify “industrial” economies where liberals favor and conservatives oppose franchise extension. They exhibit an important capitalist group and a substantial mass of industrial or urban workers. The extension of the franchise is gradual and accompanied by growth-enhancing policies. Type II countries are characterized by the presence of a sufficiently large liberal movement that represents a political challenge to conservative rule, but they lack a mass of industrial workers. Consequently, liberals support restrictive extension of the franchise. But it is the traditional ruling elite who introduces universal male suffrage, incorporating unskilled peasants in order to retain control of the state, and resulting in a low economic growth path. Although the process of franchise expansion shares certain similarities with the Latin model, the representative country is the Germany of Bismarck, where a politically weak opposition, a small working class movement, and the expected support of the rural population led Conservatives to introduce full male suffrage in 1867 and 1871, preserving the political order. Finally, Type I countries lack a significant capitalist group with policy interests in conflict with those of landowners. They correspond to agrarian or pre-industrial societies where a majority of landowners among the elite control the government and oppose any de facto extension of the franchise. These economies remain at a steady state with slow or no growth. For instance, in Italy and Spain, land reform merged the interests of landowners and capitalists, resulting in il transformismo and el turno, respectively. These systems fixed electoral outcomes and hence exhibited no de facto extensions of the franchise, despite their de jure universal suffrage (Tusell et al., 1991).

An alternative explanation to the different strategies of franchise extension, built upon arguments of revolutionary threats, is found in Ahmed (2013). She describes democratization as a process comprising various “asynchronic” moments of institutional change, namely a suffrage expansion, understood as a concession to disenfranchised groups, and an electoral system reform intended to contain working class mobilization and, in particular, socialist parties. Her thesis is based on three premises. First, the ruling elite used containment (repression and accommodation) policies to eliminate the threat of revolution. These policies were designed to avoid the radicalization of workers’ movements and to make them electorally manageable. Second, when repression and accommodation failed and franchise extension was inevitable, the choice of an electoral system aimed to safeguard the established political order and particularly the position of the ruling elite. And third, both proportional representation (PR) and single-member plurality (SMP) were departures from previous systems, “which usually consisted on an ad hoc combination of single- and multi-member districts elected under either plurality or majority rule” (Ahmed, 2013, p. 13). Therefore, incumbent pre-reform parties, under the need to change the electoral system, saw SMP and PR as strategies to be “more competitive in areas where workers’ parties were expected to be strong” (p. 16). While SMP facilitated representation by redistricting, and so manipulated the geographic distribution of preferences (a containment policy), PR reduced the quota of representation (a competition policy). Hence, Ahmed concludes, the ruling elite chose between PR and SMP to minimize the “existential threat,” which depended on the electoral viability of a workers’ party and their ideological radicalization. If containment policies managed to make a workers’ party not electorally manageable or, if viable, ideologically moderate, SMP was adopted. On the other hand, if containment policies failed to stop the rise of a workers’ party or to marginalize radical elements, then PR was adopted as the optimal system.12

Women’s Suffrage

The historical literature on women’s suffrage has tended to focus on the leaders of the suffragette movement rather than on analytical research, implicitly assuming that suffrage was conquered. In contrast, the literature on the inclusion of the lower classes in early democracies based on redistribution and revolutionary threats (see Section “Revolutionary threats theories”) has rarely paid attention to the incorporation of women, arguing that women’s suffrage followed “quite different principles from that of inclusion of subordinate classes or ethnic groups and would require a whole separate analysis” (Rueschmeyer, Stephens, & Stephens, 1992, p. 301).

Current research, however, departs from this exceptionalism of women’s suffrage and shows certain consensus in explaining women’s suffrage as a political (electoral or partisan) calculus, in which men willingly extend the franchise when they expect to benefit from it (Doepke & Tertilt, 2009; Bertocchi, 2011; Teele, 2014).13 This literature also emphasizes the redistributive effect of women’s enfranchisement, especially via public goods. Arguments differ though in the specific mechanisms that explain the political calculus.

On the one hand, Bertocchi (2011) presents a policy-oriented approach, similar to Lizzeri and Persico (2004), that explains the incorporation of women as a mechanism to change the decisive median voter. This type of argument combines two observations: First, women’s enfranchisement increases government spending (Lindert, 1994; Lott & Kenny, 1999), mainly through the provision of education and health (Aidt, Dutta, & Loukoianova, 2006); and second, the disenfranchisement of women is costly at the social and the domestic realms, either because of riots, social unrest, and family conflicts (Bertocchi, 2011), or because of the consequently lower education levels (Doepke & Tertilt, 2009) and their economic and social costs. Men initially oppose the enfranchisement of women, as women would vote for a higher tax rate (they are poorer than men and have higher preferences for public goods). However, as development reduces the wage gap between men and women (Bertocchi, 2006) and increases the returns to education (Doepke & Tertilt, 2009), it reaches a moment when the cost of disenfranchisement surpasses the redistributive cost of a higher tax rate and more public goods, inducing men to support extending the suffrage.

On the other hand, Teele (2014) presents a partisan oriented argument in line with Llavador and Oxoby (2005). According to this argument, incumbents willingly support the reform if they need the support of new voters and they forecast that the vote of these new voters would fall in their favor. The argument goes a step further by considering that preferences can be cultivated and that women’s movements have the capacity to create a sense of shared interests and to articulate them, making it more obvious to political groups whether women would, on average, share their party’s interests.

In conclusion, in contrast to the traditional view of women suffrage, the latest research shows that women’s enfranchisement followed a “supply” argument, or a combination of supply and demand arguments (Teele, 2014). However, demand arguments take the form of lobbying and non-violent political strategies aiming at reforming rather than overthrowing the system. The observation that women voted at rates lower than men in all the first elections that followed the enfranchisement before 1945 also supports a supply-side explanation of women enfranchisement.

Compulsory Voting

Compulsory voting refers to the formal or legal obligation to participate in elections, usually accompanied by a system of compulsory or automatic voter registration and economic or social penalties for non-compliance, like fines or the denial of benefits.14

The academic literature has focused on compulsory voting mostly as a solution to the falling turnout in elections where voting is voluntary. In this sense, enforcing compulsory voting in the first election in which a citizen is eligible to vote (“first-time compulsory voting”) seems to be particularly effective and has been suggested as a feasible proposal to help address many problems associated with the low rates of electoral participation among the young (Birch & Lodge, 2015). Nevertheless, supporters of compulsory voting have pointed out that it also has the potential to reduce socioeconomic gaps, to improve electoral campaigns, and to prevent corruption and manipulation.15 Perhaps the most influential endorsement for compulsory voting is still Lijphart’s (1997) Presidential Address of the American Political Science Association (Lijphart, 1997).

Instituting compulsory voting has the potential, and aim, to improve aggregate turnout levels. But increasing turnout is likely to affect the distribution of voters, changing the support received by the different candidates or parties, and hence the policy. Therefore, the presentation proceeds in steps. First, it addresses the estimation of the impact of compulsory voting on turnout. Second, it presents the research on whether the introduction of compulsory voting translates into more efficient campaigning, improved legitimacy, and better representativity. Finally, it addresses the impact of mandatory voting on policies.

How efficient is compulsory voting in improving aggregate turnout levels? The literature concerned with estimating the direct impact of compulsory voting on turnout uses longitudinal or within-country comparisons, as well as cross-national comparisons, finding increases in voter turnout that ranges from 5 to 40 percentage points (Birch, 2009). Two observations are in order. First, the wide range is partly due to decreasing marginal effects, since compulsory voting is likely to result in larger increases in turnout when participation is low under voluntary voting. Second, estimations of the effect of compulsory voting on turnout are likely to suffer from confounding effects and selections bias. Since states employing compulsory voting also take measures to reduce the cost of voting, like elections on weekends, simple registration procedures, and the creation of a professional bureaucracy concerned with electoral affairs, the effect of compulsory voting on turnout is likely to be overestimated (Jackman, 2001). Moreover, if countries that adopt compulsory voting show in the first place an inclination toward policies associated with the adoption of compulsory voting, the policy implications of compulsory voting may also be overestimated. An alternative approach uses public opinion surveys as proxies of natural experiments for removing compulsory voting. They obtain declines in turnout ranging from a moderate fall of less than 10 percentage points in Australia (Mackerras & McAllister, 1999) to large falls on the order of 30 percentage points in Belgium (Hooghe & Pelleriaux, 1998), Brazil (Power & Roberts, 1995), Venezuela, and more recently Switzerland (Bechtel, Hangartner, & Schmid, 2015). However, asking about the counterfactual of voluntary voting is always subject to the criticism that a removal of compulsory voting would imply a change in mobilization efforts, electoral platforms, and even candidates’ profiles most likely not captured in the responses. Therefore, one may conclude that compulsory voting has a statistically significant effect on participation, but its magnitude depends on electoral participation levels in its absence and, more generally, the factors that predispose a country to a low turnout.

Does compulsory voting improve representativity? Based on the observation that low income and unskilled groups tend to show lower participation rates in voluntary voting systems, it is common to claim that compulsory voting improves the representativity of elections by removing “biases” in turnout against these low-income groups, reducing representational inequality (Husted & Kenny, 1997). Compulsory voting may break non-voters from a “self-fulfilling cycle of quiescence, alienation and government neglect” (Hill, 2006, p. 216). In the same vein, Jaitman (2013) finds that the effect on turnout is twice as much in unskilled citizens than in skilled citizens. Finally, since turnout affects the distribution of votes across parties and candidates, compulsory voting provides an advantage for left parties (Citrin, Schickler, & Sides, 2003; Hansford & Gomez, 2010). Bechtel et al.’s (2015) estimates for Switzerland show increases in the support for leftist policy positions in referendums by up to 20 percentage points.

Lijphart (1997) and Jackman (2001) maintain that compulsory voting leads to “higher quality” campaigns since it eliminates concerns with mobilizing partisan constituencies and may increase voters’ incentives to get more political knowledge. However, measurement considerations make it difficult to undertake cross-national empirical analysis.

From a consequentialist perspective, the interest focuses on understanding the policy effects of compulsory voting and, in particular, its potential to alleviate policy biases. Classical arguments respond to the assumption that voting follows the economic class, and hence compulsory voting results in higher welfare spending and more government intervention, as it increases the support for the left. However, we lack systematic knowledge about the causal effect of compulsory voting on public policy, “although this idea has attracted considerable attention in the literature and the potential gravity of the underlying problem is well known” (Bechtel et al., 2015).16

A fairly unexplored avenue of research is the combination of compulsory voting with a redesign role for blank votes, motivated by the high rate of invalidated votes, supposedly from voters dissatisfied with the available alternatives. Its potential crucially depends on the possibility of increasing the relevance of blank votes in assigning seats (Power & Roberts, 1995).

Finally, detractors of compulsory voting have raised the following concern: If voting is expressive and non-voters are more likely to vote randomly when forced to vote, compulsory voting may violate Pareto efficiency (Jakee & Sun, 2006). 17 In a similar vein, the swing voter’s curse shows that uninformed voters would be better off by not participating (Feddersen & Pesendorfer, 1996). Moreover, these problems are exacerbated by herding behavior as a result of information cascades. On the other hand, as Lijphart (1997) pointed out, compulsory voting may serve as an incentive for voters to become better informed. Unfortunately, very few studies try to measure these effects (Gordon & Segura, 1997).


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(1.) Of the 145 franchise reforms recorded in Przeworski (2009, table 1), only 24 implementing universal suffrage started from a situation where women had the same rights as men. On the other hand, almost 50% implemented directly universal suffrage or jumped from some kind of restricted male suffrage, a ratio that increases to 74% when including changes from universal manhood to universal male and female suffrage.

(2.) France is a well-known example of a country that has moved back and forth between restrictions and expansions of male suffrage. For instance, the 1830 suffrage restriction eliminated all but the richest landowners from the electorate. Soon afterwards the Orleanist enacted a limited extension. But the victories of the petty bourgeoisie in 1849 by-elections led conservatives to disenfranchise 2.8 million men (Collier, 1999). Rosanvallon (1992) provides an important analysis of the road towards universal suffrage in France and how it compares with that in other countries.

(3.) For instance, manhood suffrage by Bismarck and Napoleon III were hardly democratic (Collier, 1999).

(4.) For instance, rising wages in Sweden resulted in an increase in the electorate over the period 1872–1908: Without legislative changes, the percentage of enfranchised males increased from 22% to 33% in rural areas and from 21% to 45% in urban areas (Heckscher, 1963).

(5.) Interestingly, this type of argument was recycled by suffragette leaders, first to argue the harmlessness of giving the right to vote to women, and later to argue for women’s suffrage as a counter-weight to newly enfranchised groups, like immigrants or blacks (Colomer, 2001, p. 30).

(6.) A noteworthy example to follow is Przeworski’s (2009) statistical analysis.

(7.) See the references in Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens (1992).

(8.) Focusing on the New World colonies, these authors also show that franchise extension leads to higher growth rates by increasing education.

(9.) For instance a conventional view of the 1846 Corn Laws in Britain is “that the abolition of duties would result in increased social welfare benefiting the working classes and the industrialists, who joined forces in the Anti-Corn Law League against the landed interests” (Lizzeri & Persico, 2004, p. 711).

(10.) The argument of the franchise extension as a commitment device can also be applied in this context, with the need of mass cooperation substituting the revolutionary threats.

(11.) United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand increased their electorate in figures that never reached the two-digit points of the total population, except for women’s suffrage (Colomer, 2001, table 2.1).

(12.) This theory shares in common with other explanations of the adoption of PR the view that the institutional change aimed at safeguarding the position of the political elite. However, Rokkan (1970) and Boix (1999) associate PR to the existence of a divided elite, while Cusack, Iversen, and Soskice (2007) explain it as a process of cross-class alliances.

(13.) This utilitarian view of women suffrage is already present in Rosanvallon (1992). He argues that woman suffrage was successful when based on the social function of women’s vote (and linked to problems in education, hygiene, housing, or health), rather than on arguments of natural rights.

(14.) See Birch (2009) for a broader conceptualization (chap. 1) as well as for the history of the compulsory voting institution (chap. 2).

(15.) For instance, addressing corruption was the reason to introduce compulsory voting in Thailand (Birch, 2009).

(16.) As a counter argument, Bhattacharya, Duffy, and Kimb’s (2014) experimental study finds support for voters adapting their voting strategies to the voting mechanism, with compulsory voting inducing voters to become strategic and make the group decision differences negligible between voluntary and compulsory voting. See also Hoffman, León, and Lombardi, (2017).

(17.) However, Krasa and Polborn (2009) find that in a costly voting model, where voting is instrumental but costly, increasing turnout, and hence compulsory voting, is efficient.