The New International Encyclopædia/Suffrage

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SUFFRAGE (Lat. suffragium, vote). In a representative government, the act of a qualified voter in participating in the choice of government officials or in voting on laws or constitutions submitted to the electorate. There are two views as to the basis of suffrage. One holds that it is a privilege bestowed by the State upon such of its citizens as are capable of exercising it intelligently and for the public welfare. The other view regards it as the natural right of all adult male citizens. This was the doctrine of the eighteenth-century philosophy, but has been rejected by most States, suffrage having been restricted by them on some of the following bases: ownership of property, payment of taxes, educational attainments, moral character, residence, religious profession, etc. An almost universal rule has been to exclude women, children, lunatics, idiots, convicted criminals, and aliens from the exercise of the suffrage, although there have been and are still exceptions.

In the American colonies the qualifications for suffrage varied greatly. Thus in Virginia the suffrage was restricted to ‘freeholders and housekeepers;’ in Massachusetts until 1664 it was restricted to church members; in the New Haven Colony it was the same; under the Massachusetts charter of 1692 it was restricted to freeholders of a certain amount of property. The religious tests were the first to be abolished, the last survival of the kind existing in South Carolina from 1778 to 1790. The right of each State to regulate the whole matter of the suffrage within its limits was recognized by the Federal Constitution and in hardly any two States were the requirements the same. During the early part of the nineteenth century a freehold qualification was required in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the amount ranging from £20 in New York to £60 in Massachusetts or from 25 acres of improved land in Virginia to 50 acres in Maryland and South Carolina. The payment of taxes alone was required in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Georgia. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century the freehold requirement was abolished in nearly every State. Likewise the tax and ownership of personalty qualifications disappeared in most of the States, so that adult male suffrage became the general rule long before the outbreak of the Civil War. Free negroes were almost everywhere excluded.

A readjustment of the suffrage followed the Civil War. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 conferred the right of suffrage on the freedmen. In all the States that had rebelled the negroes voted for the first time in 1867 in the elections for delegates to the reconstruction constitutional conventions, and in the following year on the question of adopting or rejecting the new constitutions. The States having once been readmitted to the Union, however, there was nothing to prevent them from withdrawing the right temporarily bestowed on the freedmen by Congress. The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to guard against such action on the part of the reconstructed States. On account of the difficulty of enforcing this amendment and the inadequacy of protection which it afforded the negro population, the reconstructionists advanced another step. In the first place, it was made a condition precedent to the readmission to the Union of the remaining unreconstructed States that they adopt constitutions with unamendable provisions guaranteeing the right of suffrage to negroes. At the same time the Fifteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution was carried. But the Constitution confers the right of suffrage directly on no one, so that there are no United States voters. This is a prerogative of the individual States, and they may exclude any number of persons on other grounds than race or color, such as illiteracy, lack of citizenship, nonpayment of taxes, etc., subject to the penalty of a reduction of representation in Congress.

The attainment of the twenty-first year of age is a qualification in every State. In a number of States women are allowed to vote in school elections and in several Western States they vote in State elections. The States may and generally do require voters to register within certain periods as a means of preventing frauds at the election, and this requirement indirectly excludes some. Residence within the State and district for a certain period previous to the election is an almost universal requirement. Educational tests have long existed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and have been introduced in a number of the Southern States, as a result of which the suffrage has been practically restricted to the whites in Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia. In Louisiana and North Carolina the hereditary principle has also been introduced into the suffrage by the so-called ‘grandfather’ provision, which extends the right to vote to all adult males, without regard to intelligence or property, whose fathers or grandfathers possessed the right to vote on January 1, 1867. See the sections on government of the various countries and States for suffrage requirements.