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In 1835 the Municipal Reform Act was passed by Parliament. As a result 178 boroughs were granted permission to allow the townspeople to have their own councils. Over the next thirty years other boroughs were given permission to have elected town councils and gradually these bodies took over the control of local services such as street lighting, housing and education.
In 1869 Parliament passed the Municipal Franchise Act. This legislation extended the vote to women rate-payers in local elections. This act also enabled women to serve as Poor Law Guardians. Several suffragists, including Marie Corbett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard took this opportunity to become involve in local government.
The County Council Act of 1888 also gave them the right to vote in County and Borough Councils. However, it was not until an act was passed in 1907 that women were permitted to be members of County and Borough Councils. Women now became active in local politics and in 1908, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first women to be elected mayor when she was chosen for the post in Aldeburgh.
The leaders of the Liberal Party advised women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in municipal offices, especially the unsalaried offices. A large number of women had availed themselves of this advice, and were serving on Boards of Guardians, on school boards, and in other capacities. My children now being old enough for me to leave them with competent nurses, I was free to join these ranks. A year after my return to Manchester in 1894 I became a candidate for the Board of Poor Law Guardians... I was elected, heading the poll by a very large majority.
When I came into office I found that the law was being very harshly administered. The old board had been made up of the kind of men who are known as rate savers. They were guardians, not of the poor but of the rates… For instance, the inmates were being very poorly fed.
I found the old folks in the workhouse sitting on backless forms, or benches. They had no privacy, no possessions, not even a locker… After I took office I gave the old people comfortable Windsor chairs to sit in, and in a number of ways we managed to make their existence more endurable.
The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors. These little girls were clad, summer and winter, in thin cotton frocks, low in the neck and short sleeved. At night they wore nothing at all, night dresses being considered too good for paupers. The fact that bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time had not suggested to the guardians any change in the fashion of their clothes.
I also found pregnant women in the workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world. Many of them were unmarried women, very, very young, mere girls. These poor mothers were allowed to stay in the hospital after confinement for a short two weeks. Then they had to make a choice of staying in the workhouse and earning their living by scrubbing and other work, in which case they were separated from their babies. They could stay and be paupers, or they could leave - leave with a two-week-old baby in their arms, without hope, without home, without money, without anywhere to go. What became of those girls, and what became of their hapless infants?
My mother visited the local Uckfield Workhouse and was appalled by the conditions in which orphaned and abandoned children were living in wards with the old and mentally afflicted. She stood for election as Poor Law Guardian, and became one of the first women in the country to be Guardian and Rural District Councillor. She reformed conditions in the workhouse, and gradually removed all the children, whom she boarded out with village families… When she had emptied Uckfield Workhouse, she took children from Eastbourne Workhouse and from a London borough. When she died, many of these former inhabitants of the workhouse wrote to me… and they all used the same phrase: "She was my best friend."
The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour, the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did so in boiling water, and it died."
"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing. In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within the year."
I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English Poor Law Commission… What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised cruelty in the treatment of the poor… that thousands of innocent children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages of measles, whooping-cough, etc.
Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject, the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.
Women’s Franchise League (1889-1903)
In 1889, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her husband Richard Pankhurst (1825-1898), an attorney, founded the Women’s Franchise League (WFL). This organization was one of the first middle-class organizations to promote women’s suffrage in nineteenth-century Britain. The main goal of the WFL was to advocate for married women’s the right to vote in local elections. The organization was active until 1903, five years after Richard Pankhurst’s death, yet its dissolution nowhere near ended the Pankhurst family’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement.
The Pankhurst family was a major force in the British women’s suffrage movement. Their creation of the Women’s Franchise League was one of the first organizations they founded. Prior to the founding of the Women’s Franchise League, Emmeline and her sister participated in a feminist demonstration during the 1868 General Election and in 1872 she attended the first of many suffragist meetings. Richard Pankhurst also was involved early on in supporting women’s suffrage. He drafted the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869. This legislation extended the vote to women rate-payers in local elections. The act also enabled women to serve as Poor Law Guardians. Several suffragists, including Marie Corbett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard took this opportunity to become involved in local government. Pankhurst also drafted the Married Women’s Property Act, passed in 1870, that allowed married women to be legal owners of their earned and inherited property.
In 1889, Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst created the Women’s Franchise League and dedicated it primarily to gaining that right to vote for women on the local level. The history of this organization illustrates the radicalization of Emmeline Pankhurst’s beliefs regarding women’s suffrage. She began advocating with her husband for local suffrage through the Women’s Franchise League, but it proved to be only a stepping stone for her to become a major figurehead of the more radical movement for all women’s right to vote on the same grounds as men in the national level. She wanted the voting rules for men to be extended to women. When this was not achieved through peaceful campaign strategies, she began to see the necessity of using more militant strategies. The founding of the Women’s Franchise League would prove the least radical of all of her feminist endeavors. However, in some ways because of this, it also provided her the credibility she would need to become the leading organizer of the militant women’s suffrage movement.
The Women’s Franchise League was not the most successful of the organizations that Emmeline Pankhurst helped found. However, it was a crucial step for her to gain experience as a leader for women’s suffrage. The organization also opened the doors for middle-class women to become involved early on in the suffragist movement. Lesser known groups, such as the Women’s Franchise League, were just as important as larger groups because they provided a segue into the larger, more efficient organizations that we remember.
Shana Loudermelk, History and Psychology double major, Class of 2019
Literature and Websites
- Daniels, Patricia, and Contributing Writer. “A Closer Look at Women’s Rights Activist Emmeline Pankhurst.” ThoughtCo, at: https://www.thoughtco.com/emmeline-pankhurst-1779832. (Accessed April 22, 2018).
- Simkin, John. “Emmeline Pankhurst.” Spartacus Educational, September 1997, at: http://spartacus-educational.com/WpankhurstE.htm. (Accessed April 22, 2018).
- Simkin, John. “Richard Pankhurst.” Spartacus Educational, August 2014. http://spartacus-educational.com/TUpankhurst.htm. (Accessed April 22, 2018).
Emmeline Pankhurst, c. 1913
Drawing of a WFL meeting in the home of Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, circa 1890.
Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 Section explains the relationship between women, Parliament and politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on their expanded role within local government in the prelude to the Representation of the People Act 1918. This post is based in part on Kathryn’s contribution to the book accompanying the ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition currently running in Westminster Hall. For further details on the exhibition, see here.
This year marks the centenary of (some) women receiving the parliamentary franchise and the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act. However, as several of our previous posts – here and on our Victorian Commons site – have explored, women were involved with Parliament and politics in a variety of different ways long before their formal inclusion within the electoral system: as petitioners and campaigners spectators at the hustings and in Parliament political wives electoral patrons and even, occasionally, as voters in parliamentary elections.
G. Cruikshank, The rights of women, or the effects of female enfranchisement (1853)
Following on from a blog earlier this year about women’s political involvement between 1832 and 1868, this post looks at the period between 1868 and 1918. Women were becoming increasingly politically active, not least through the campaign for women’s suffrage. During the 1870s, petitions for women’s suffrage with over 2,200,000 signatures were presented to the Commons. Yet, at the same time, there were some areas where the opportunities for women to participate in politics had been curtailed. It is often forgotten that the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 was accompanied by the abolition of the hustings, where candidates had been nominated and explained their political views to crowds composed of electors and non-electors alike. Press reports routinely noted the presence of women as spectators. One account in 1857 observed:
Go down to any borough election, take your place upon the hustings, and look around. The space beneath is crammed [with] working men – electors and non-electors – not unmixed with wives and children. Look up, and every window … is fitted with fair faces, eager eyes, and delicate hands waving cambric handkerchiefs in token of their exultation. The wives, the daughters, and the infant children of the candidates are there.
In contrast, after 1872, candidates handed in their nomination papers privately and unceremoniously, removing this opportunity for non-electors – male and female alike – to take part in election proceedings.
Women did, however, have new opportunities to get involved in politics. One way of doing so was through the growing number of local organisations set up by the Liberal and Conservative parties as they tried to harness the support of the expanded (male) electorate enfranchised by the Third Reform Act of 1884-5. This reform, combined with the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act, which placed strict limits on the amounts which candidates could spend at parliamentary elections and what they could spend it on, meant that politicians increasingly relied on the support of volunteer activists to assist them in their election campaigning.
Primrose League badges
These election workers were recruited from local Liberal and Conservative associations and clubs, and from auxiliary organisations such as the Primrose League, set up in 1883 to support the Conservative cause. It became the largest mass political organisation of its day, encompassing men, women and children. By 1891 it had 500,000 female members. These ‘Primrose Dames’ were not only involved with the League’s social events – its garden fêtes and tea parties – but were also praised for their electioneering efforts. William Arnold Statham, who contested one of the Bethnal Green parliamentary seats in London in 1895, recorded that female volunteers had spoken at ‘open-air and turbulent meetings’, displaying their ‘unaffected, unassuming and convincing eloquence’. They had also ‘trudged up and down the steep stairs’ of working-class houses for ‘hours and hours’, delivering election leaflets, converting doubtful voters, tracing voters who had moved and ‘pursuing inquiries to check the register’.
Liberal women made similar efforts on behalf of their party’s candidates, although the issue of women’s suffrage proved a divisive one for the women’s Liberal organisations, with the anti-suffrage Women’s National Liberal Association splitting off from the pro-suffrage Women’s Liberal Federation in 1892. Despite this, their contribution was such that in autumn 1910 the Liberal Chief Whip warned the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, who opposed women’s suffrage, that
You cannot afford, on the eve of a General Election, to drive the whole Women’s Movement into the most bitter opposition nor to weaken and in many cases alienate the support of the most active Liberal women workers.
Two notable female Liberal activists were the first women to qualify as professional constituency agents, Bertha Fischer (in 1902) and Ellen Pocock (in 1908), a remarkable achievement in a period when women were excluded from the parliamentary vote.
Although they were denied the parliamentary franchise until 1918, women were able to participate as voters – and, in some cases, as candidates – in local government. In 1869 the Manchester MP Jacob Bright successfully altered the Municipal Franchise Act to allow women in England and Wales to vote at municipal elections on the same basis as men (a ratepayer franchise). Women in Scotland and Ireland had to wait longer for the municipal vote – until 1882 and 1898 respectively. A court ruling in 1872 decided that this franchise applied to single and widowed women only.
Lydia Becker, by Susan Isabel Dacre image credit: Manchester Art Gallery via artuk.org
From 1870 women who held the requisite property qualification could vote for and be elected to School Boards, which oversaw the local administration of education. The small number of women elected to School Boards in 1870 included the suffragists Lydia Becker in Manchester and Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies in London. Wales’s first female School Board member was Rose Crawshay at Merthyr in 1871, while Jane Arthur at Paisley in 1873 was the first woman elected to a Scottish school board. The first woman elected to a Board of Guardians, which supervised administration of the poor law, was Martha Merrington at Kensington in 1875. By 1885 there were 50 female poor law guardians, mostly in urban areas.
Women could also vote for the new county councils created in 1888. Two women, Jane Cobden (daughter of the noted Radical Richard Cobden) and Margaret Sandhurst, were elected to the first London County Council in 1889, but following legal objections women were deemed ineligible to stand for county councils until the law changed in 1907. Despite this setback, women received fresh opportunities under the 1894 Local Government Act. They could now vote and stand for rural and urban district councils and parish councils, and it became easier to stand as poor law guardians, as the high property qualification was abolished. Most significantly, this reform allowed married women to become local government electors, provided they did not register for the same property as their husbands.
By the late 1890s there were 729,000 female voters in England and Wales, comprising 13.7% of the municipal electorate. In 1895 there were 128 female School Board members and 893 female poor law guardians. While it could be argued that the responsibilities of local bodies – for education, the poor and health – were an extension of women’s traditional domestic role, the local government arena was significant in giving women experience as voters and office-holders, long before the reforms of 1918 and 1928 included them within the parliamentary electorate.
1. Registers of Electorates (1840-1922)
(i) Burgess Lists under the Municipal Reform Act 1840 (1869-1897)
- Burgess Roll for Market Ward, Borough of Limerick. The roll lists annually the persons entitled to be enrolled as Burgesses. Entries are arranged alphabetically, and details recorded for each person include name, residence, situation of qualifying property, and description of property. Also recorded is the date paid, amount paid and amount due by each person for ‘rate for paving, sewering and lighting’, and for ‘Grand Jury Cess, or any cess, applotment or Rate raised or levied for fiscal purposes of a like nature within the Borough of Limerick’, and for the ‘Borough Rate’ and ‘Poor Rate’. Each folio is signed by the Town Clerk. In 1869, 226 persons were enrolled as Burgesses, and in 1894 there was 345 persons enrolled.
- Extent: c. 170ff
- Access Rules: N.A.
- Burgess Roll for the city of Limerick. Roll is arranged by electoral ward and then alphabetically by surname. Details recorded for each Burgess include number on roll, name, street lane or other place in the ward where the property in respect whereof the party is enrolled is situate.
- Extent: c. 25pp
- Access Rules: N.A.
(ii) Electoral Registers post 1898 Local Government Act (1912)
- Copy of the register of all persons entitled to vote as parliamentary or local government electors for the Year 1912 in the Parliamentary Borough of Limerick. The register is arranged by Parliamentary Polling district and by street name. Details recorded for each person include the place of abode, and street lane or other like place in the registration unit, and number of house (if any) where the property is situate , surname and christian name, name or description of premises rated, nature of qualification and rated value of premises. Includes summary of register.
- Extent: c. 150pp
- Access Rules: N.A.
(iii) Parliamentary Electoral Registers (1885-1895)
Copies of the Registers of Persons entitled to vote at any election of a member of parliament for the county of the city of Limerick.
Registers are arranged by polling district, and then alphabetically by surname. Details recorded for each person include surname and Christian name, place of abode, nature of qualification, description and situation of property, and rated value of premises.
Right to Vote in Canada
The term franchise denotes the right to vote in elections for members of Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal councils. The Canadian franchise dates from the mid-18th-century colonial period. At that time, restrictions effectively limited the right to vote to male property holders. Since then, voting qualifications and the categories of eligible voters have expanded according to jurisdiction. These changes reflect the evolution of Canada’s social values and constitutional requirements.
As the colonies that came to form Canada in 1867 became self-governing, they eventually gained control of defining who could vote. (See Representative Government.) As a result, the rules differed substantially between the colonies. All were heavily influenced by English law the franchise was restricted to men with property assets of a certain value, and Catholics were prevented from voting. However, the unique circumstances of each of the colonies meant that these rules could not simply be transferred directly.
For most of the pre-Confederation period, most colonies required property ownership to qualify to vote. The amount of property required varied over time and in the different colonies. In Nova Scotia, there were no property qualifications between 1851 and 1863. New Brunswick got an elected assembly in 1785. (See Responsible Government.) It initially chose to extend the franchise to those without property but it introduced strict property restrictions in 1791. New Brunswick also restricted Catholic people from voting. This disenfranchised the Acadians. Both Upper and Lower Canada (present day Ontario and Quebec) maintained property restrictions throughout this period. Prince Edward Island (PEI) was an exception, as few residents on the Island owned land. (See PEI Land Question.)
Most colonies initially followed the British practice that required eligible voters to take an oath of loyalty. These oaths explicitly renounced papal authority, which disenfranchised Catholics. The references in oaths to the “Christian faith” also excluded Jewish people. In addition, some religious communities, such as Quakers, were prevented by their faith from taking oaths. Nova Scotia abolished religious qualifications in 1789 New Brunswick did so in 1810. PEI enfranchised Quakers in 1785. It allowed non-Protestants to vote in 1830. Upper and Lower Canada had no religious exclusions. However, until 1833, groups such as Quakers could not vote because of the need to take oaths. (See also Voting in Early Canada.)
Finally, women voted regularly in Lower Canada from 1791 until 1849. There are reports of women voting occasionally in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. However, for most of this period and in most of the colonies only men could vote. (See also Women’s Suffrage.)
With Confederation in 1867, the definition of the franchise was left to the provinces. This meant that eligibility to vote in a federal election could vary from one province to another. All provinces, however, restricted the franchise to male British subjects who were at least 21 years old who met a property qualification.
For the first 50 years after Confederation, the Liberal and Conservative parties manipulated the federal franchise in a blatantly partisan fashion. At various times until 1920, the federal franchise was based either on the electoral lists drawn up by the provinces for provincial elections or on a federal list compiled by enumerators appointed by the governing party in Ottawa. Until 1885, the vote was based on provincial law. Because of this, elections were staggered they could be held on different days in different places. Voters in one constituency might already know which party was likely to form government. Given the importance of patronage in this era of Canadian politics, this created a powerful incentive to vote for the winning party.
Canada’s most controversial franchise legislation was passed by Parliament during the First World War. The Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act of 1917 enfranchised female relatives of men serving with the Canadian or British armed forces as well as all servicemen, including those under 21 and status Indians. It also disenfranchised conscientious objectors and British subjects naturalized after 1902 who were born in an enemy country or who spoke an enemy language. Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative government openly admitted that the legislation was biased in its favour. The 1917 election results proved that they were right. Such abuses and shifts in the policies governing the right to vote ended in 1920 with the adoption of the Dominion Elections Act. It established a standard Dominion-wide franchise.
Some instances were recorded of women voting in Canada until 1849. Despite this, Canadian women were systematically and universally disenfranchised. Apart from the temporary and selective right to vote granted to women under the Wartime Elections Act in 1917, women were first granted the right to vote federally in 1918.
In 1916, Manitoba became the first province to enfranchise women for provincial elections. Quebec was the last province to do so, in 1940. In 1951, the Northwest Territories became the last territory to grant women the vote. (See also Women’s Movement Women’s Suffrage.)A reimagined advertisement for the mock parliament held at Walker Theatre, January 1914, in which Nellie McClung took part and helped advanced the cause of women's suffrage. en. (courtesy Government of Canada)
During the period of Black enslavement in Canada, from the early 1600s until its abolition on 1 August 1834, Black persons were legally deemed to be chattel property (personal possessions). As such, Black people were not considered to be persons they therefore did not possess the rights or freedoms enjoyed by full citizens. These included protections under the law and involvement in the democratic process. (See Black Voting Rights in Canada.)
Black Canadians secured some rights and freedoms as their social status changed from enslaved persons to British subjects. This occurred with the gradual abolition of enslavement, during the period 1793 to 1834. (See also Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery.) As British subjects, Black Canadians were technically entitled to all of the rights, freedoms and privileges that status carried. However, because of their skin colour, they faced racism and discrimination. As a result, their civil rights and civil liberties were limited. The rights and freedoms of Black women were further restricted by virtue of their sex. Most women did not gain suffrage at the federal level until 1918 and between 1916 and 1940 at the provincial level. (See Women’s Suffrage.)
Black men had the right to vote if they were naturalized subjects and owned taxable property. Until 1920, most colonies or provinces required eligible voters to own property or have a taxable net worth. This practice excluded poor people, the working class and many racialized minorities. Black Canadians were not prohibited by law from exercising the right to vote. However, public sentiment against extending the franchise to Black people did exist, and local conventions did prevent Black persons from voting.
Asian peoples first began arriving in Canada in the 19th century. From that point through much of the first half of the 20th century, most Canadians of Asian heritage were denied the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. Federally, the Electoral Franchise Act (1885) explicitly denied Chinese Canadians the right to vote. In 1898, new legislation extended the franchise to Asian voters.
In 1920, the Dominion Elections Act said that if a province discriminated against a group by reason of race, that group would also be excluded from the federal franchise. This meant that British Columbia residents of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian background lost their right to vote in national elections. (Saskatchewan also disenfranchised the Chinese.) In 1948, the federal government voted to repeal this section of the Dominion Elections Act. However, the change did not come into effect until 1 April 1949. Japanese Canadians also regained the right to live anywhere in Canada, which was initially restricted following their internment during the Second World War. Only a week earlier, the British Columbia government had amended the Provincial Elections Act to enfranchise all racial groups in the province with the exception of Doukhobors. The last statutory disenfranchisement of Asian Canadians was removed.
Indigenous peoples in Canada consist of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. Each has a different history of voting rights. (See also Indigenous Suffrage Indigenous Women and the Franchise.)
Through a process called enfranchisement, First Nations people could give up their Indian status and vote in federal elections as early as 1867. (A status Indian is an individual who is registered under the Indian Act. It is a legal recognition of a person’s First Nations heritage. It affords certain rights, such as the right to live on reserve land.) The term enfranchisement was used for those who gave up their status by choice. It also applied to the much larger number of Indigenous men and women who lost status automatically for one of several reasons. These included the loss of status upon completion of university and upon the marriage of a woman to a non-status man. (See Women and the Indian Act.) First Nations men who served during the Second World War gained the franchise without having to relinquish status. But they could only continue to vote if they moved from their homes on reserves.
In the 1920s, the federal government imposed elected leadership structures on top of traditional forms of governance on reserves. A theoretical enfranchisement occurred under this imposition. For example, bands elected leaders that dealt with the federal government. However, this system was not well received and was often boycotted. Many communities did, and still do, have two chiefs: the elected chief, who is officially recognized by government, and a traditional chief, who is often determined by heredity.
Non-status Indians eventually received full voting rights at the provincial level. This started with British Columbia in 1949 and ended with Quebec in 1969. The federal franchise was first extended to non-status Indians in 1950. The franchise fully extended to status Indians in 1960 under the John Diefenbaker government. This was 12 years after a parliamentary committee recommended that First Nations be fully enfranchised. (See also Indian Act Enfranchisement.)First votes cast since right to vote extended to all status Indians were those of the Rice Lake Band near Peterborough, ON. From left to right: Lawrence Salleby Chief Ralph Loucks, deputy returning officer Lucy Muskrat, poll clerk Eldon Muskrat, poll constable. Credit: Nick Nickels/Library and Archives Canada/PA-123915en.
The Dominion Franchise Act (1934) disqualified Inuit, along with status Indians, from voting in federal elections. Most Inuit were enfranchised in 1950. But they were unable to vote for various reasons. Inuit were rarely enumerated (added to official lists of people entitled to vote) and ballot boxes were not brought to Inuit communities in the Arctic until the 1962 general election.
The Métis have never experienced restrictions on their right to vote. Métis have by and large not been covered by treaties or statutes such as the Indian Act. Therefore, no legal means have existed by which to disenfranchise them.
Canada now has a virtually universal franchise at both the provincial and federal levels. Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that, “every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” This provision paved the way for the successful court challenge to the disenfranchisement of judges and persons with intellectual disabilities. The courts struck down the denial of the vote to these groups by accepting the inclusiveness of Section 3 of the Charter. They also found under Section 1 of the Charter that such limitations could not be justified as “reasonable” in a “free and democratic society.”
In challenges to the Canada Elections Act between 1986 and 2002, prison inmates in Manitoba and Ontario met with mixed success in their various Charter challenges to the denial of their right to vote. The question was eventually resolved in the prisoners’ favour in a 5 to 4 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (Sauvé v. Canada, 2002). As a result, all restrictions on prisoners’ voting rights at both the federal and provincial levels were struck down.
The courts have generously interpreted the right to vote under Charter challenges. Nonetheless, one restricted category of otherwise eligible voters remained. In 1993, the Canada Elections Act was amended to grant the vote to Canadians living abroad for up to five years at a time. The exclusion of Canadians living abroad for more than five years at a time was subject to a Charter challenge in the Ontario Court of Appeal it ruled against the challenge. However, in January 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Canadian citizens can vote in federal elections regardless of how long they have lived outside the country.Copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Dept of Secretary of State, Canada) | (Dept of Secretary of State, Canada)
National Register of Electors
A National Register of Electors was established in 1997 to prepare voters’ lists. It replaced door-to-door enumerations at election time. These were expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive. The computerized registry is maintained in Ottawa by Elections Canada. It is an independent and non-partisan agency that administers federal elections. (See Chief Electoral Officer.) The registry is updated with information (e.g., name, address, sex, and date of birth of Canadians eligible to vote) supplied by provincial and federal agencies these include Vital Statistics registrars, the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Post. The relevant information on electors contained in the register is in turn shared with provincial, territorial and municipal electoral officials for their voters’ lists.
The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship. In Canada, the right to vote has gone from being held by a relatively small group — Protestant men who owned property — to being widely held. The development of the franchise in Canada thus reflects Canada’s maturation as a liberal democracy.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
WATCH: Voting Rights Act of 1965
August 6, 1965: Voting Rights Act
President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law, banning literacy tests and enforcing the 15th Amendment on a federal level. It also provides for federal examiners who can register voters in certain jurisdictions. Facing a flurry of legal challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds its constitutionality in a number of rulings from 1965-1969. In 1970, Section 5 is extended for five years.
July 1, 1971: 18 and Up Can Vote
The 26th Amendment is signed by President Richard Nixon, granting the right to vote to U.S. citizens who are 18 or older. Prohibiting discrimination based on age, it lowers the age from 21, largely in reaction to the number of 18-20-year-olds fighting in Vietnam.
August 6, 1975: Rights for Non-English-Speaking Voters
In addition to establishing a permanent ban on literacy tests and other discriminatory voting requirements, amendments to the Voting Rights Act are signed into law by President Gerald Ford requiring districts with significant numbers of non-English-speaking voters to be provided with instructions or assistance in registering and voting.
June 29, 1982: Voting Rights Act Extended
President Ronald Reagan signs a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act. Revisions also reverse recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, making voting easier for people with disabilities and the elderly.
1869 Municipal Franchise Act - History
1659 Anna Maria von Schurman: The Learned Maid or, Whether a Maid May Be a Scholar.
1673 Mrs. Bathsua Makin: "An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues."
1694 Mary Astell: "A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest."
1716 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: "Answer to a Love Letter."
1778 Fanny Burney: Evelina .
1792 Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (electronic text at Wiretap)
1795 Maria Edgeworth: Letters for Literary Ladies Castle Rackrent (1800).
1801 Census reveals that women outnumber men by 400,000 (surplus of unmarried women).
1803 Methodist conference bans women from preaching.
1813 Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice.
1818 Mary Shelley: Frankenstein .
1823 John Stuart Mill jailed for distributing pamphlets on birth control.
1825 Anna Wheeler/William Thompson: Appeal of One Half of the Human Race.
1837 William IV dies, succeeded by niece, Princess Victoria Sarah Moore.
Grimke: Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women .
1838 Sarah Ellis: The Women of England, Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits.
Harriet Martineau: How to Observe Morals and Manners (one of the first introductions to sociological methodology).
1839 Child Custody Act (now possible for a mother to be given custody of her children under seven).
1840 Queen marries her first cousin, Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Judge upholds a man's right to lock up his wife and beat her in moderation.
Sydney Owenson Morgan: Woman and her Master , 2 volumes.
1841 Governesses' Benevolent Institution founded.
1842 Ashely's Mines Act (women and children excluded from the mines).
Louis Aime-Martin: The Education of Mothers of Families or, The Civilisation of the Human Race by Women .
1843 Association for the Aid of Milliners and Dressmakers founded.
Mrs. Hugo Reid: A Plea for Woman, Being a Vindication of the Importance and Extent of her Natural Sphere of Action.
1844 Factory Act (women and children).
Elizabeth Barrett: "Cry of the Children" Poems .
1845 Margaret Fuller (major inspiration of American feminist movement): Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
1846 Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot): translation of Strauss' Das Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus).
Anna Jameson: "'Woman's Mission' and 'Woman's Position"' "On the Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses."
1847 Chloroform first used in childbirth.
1847 (also 1850) Factory Acts (women and children restricted to 10 1/2 hour day).
Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre.
Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights.
Ann Brontë: Agnes Grey .
1848 Queen's College, London, established for women who intend to teach.
Women's Rights Association founded in United States.
Mrs. Gaskell: Mary Barton .
1849 Bedford College for Women founded.
Charlotte Brontë: Shirley .
1850 Emily Shirreff and Maria G. Grey: Thoughts on Self-Culture: Addressed to Women.
First National Women's Rights Convention, Worchester, Massachusetts.
1851 Harriet Taylor: "The Enfranchisement of Women."
Women's Suffrage Petition presented to the House of Lords.
1852 Judge rules that a man may not force his wife to live with him.
Anna Jameson: Legends of the Madonna, as presented in the fine arts .
G.H. Lewes: "The Lady Novelists."
1853 Queen Victoria given chloroform during childbirth.
Charlotte Brontë: Villette .
1854 Barbara (Leigh Smith) Bodichon: A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women.
1855 George Eliot: "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft."
Stephen Fullom: The History of Woman, And her Connexion with Religion, Civilization, and Domestic Manners, from the earliest period (denounced by George Eliot).
Mrs. Gaskell: North and South .
Harriet Martineau: Autobiography.
1856 Caroline Frances Cornwallis: "The Property of Married Women."
Bessie Parkes: Remarks on the Education of Girls.
Emily Shirreff: Intellectual Education, and its influence on the Character and Happiness of Women.
1857 Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh .
Barbara (Leigh Smith) Bodichon: Women and Work .
Caroline Frances Cornwallis: "Capabilities and Disabilities of Women."
Association for the Promotion of the Employment of Women established.
Matrimonial Causes Act (legally separated wife given right to keep what she earns man may divorce wife for adultery, whereas wife must prove adultery aggravated by cruelty or desertion).
(through 1863): The Englishwoman's Journal .
1858 George Eliot: Scenes of Clerical Life .
1859 George Eliot: Adam Bede .
Harriet Martineau: "Female Industry."
Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.
1860 George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss.
1861 Prince Albert dies Queen retires into mourning.
George Eliot: Silas Marner. [Charles Dickens: Great Expectations. ]
1863 Barbara (Leigh Smith) Bodichon: "Of those who are the property of others, and of the great power that holds others as property."
1864 Contagious Diseases Acts also 1866 and 1869 — women living in certain garrison towns liable to be declared prostitutes and forcibly examined for venereal disease).
(through 1860s): The Alexandra Magazine .
1866 Barbara (Leigh Smith) Bodichon: "Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women."
Emily Davies: The Higher Education of Women.
(through 1910): The Englishwoman's Review, A Journal of Woman's Work.
1868 Josephine Butler: The Education and Employment of Women.
1869 First women's college at Cambridge founded (Girton College).
Extension of municipal franchise (right to vote) to women ratepayers.
John Stuart Mill: On the Subjection of Women. (electronic text at Wiretap)
American Woman Suffrage Association founded.
1870 First Married Woman's Property Act .
Ladies National Association for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts founded by Josephine Butler.
Josephine Butler: On the Moral Reclaimability of Prostitutes.
Education Act (right of women to serve on School Boards).
John D. Milne: Industrial Employment of Women, in the Middle and Lower Ranks .
The History of Voting Rights in the United Kingdom
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In the United States, voting is almost something we take for granted today. In 2016, almost half of eligible voters, over 100 million people, didn’t vote. Since this country was founded, the ability to participate in the government has been a constant uphill battle and the United Kingdom has known the same struggle. Hundreds of years ago, the only voice that mattered was the king until the Magna Carta opened the decision-making process up to the barons and Parliament formed. The members of this parliament were chosen by the King until 1265 when Members of Parliament started to be elected from the various counties.
However, even at this time, it was an incredibly small number of people who were able to elect these representatives, who were referred to as the “Knights of the Shire”. The Knights of the Shire Act in 1432 was the first parliamentary legislation to establish who was enfranchised to vote for the members. The act gave the right to vote to “Forty Shilling Freeholders”, meaning that only owners of real property who paid taxes to the Crown of at least 40 shillings per year (roughly £2,500 in today’s money). This remained the status quo for another 400 years, even after the passage of the Bill of Rights 1869 that provided for regular parliamentary elections. A survey from 1780 revealed that the number of enfranchised voters amounted to only 3% of the United Kingdom’s population.
The Reform Act 1832 (also known as the Representation of the People Act) was the first piece of legislation to expand voting rights in the United Kingdom. It firmly established that men above the age of 21 who were freeholders of property could vote and standardized this franchise across all boroughs. However, it specifically stated that only men could vote, laying down a statutory bar disenfranchising the nation’s women. A further Reform Act in 1867 enfranchised householders, expanding the category of eligible voters to include the working classes for the first time, while the Reform Act 1884 established this for both municipal boroughs and county constituencies. Combined, the acts pushed the number of voters to 6 million.
In the 19 th Century, the Women’s Suffrage movement got started and kept political pressure on Parliament through non-violent and violent means until the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918. The Act didn’t go far enough into establishing the right to vote for all women as it still required them to own property, but it did do away with the property requirements for men, giving the right to vote for all men regardless of race or class. The Representation of the People Act 1928 did away with the property requirements for women, finally opening the door to all persons 21 years of age or older.
The final major piece of legislation to expand the franchise came with the Representation of the People Act 1969, which (much like the 26 th Amendment in the US) extended the right to vote to all persons aged 18 to 20. Later reforms have affected the election process, establishing the types of elections (for Parliament, local, and European Parliament), reforming the process, lowering the age for candidates to 18, and more. An attempt was made to pass a bill lowering the voting age even further to 16, but it didn’t succeed. Interestingly, in 2012, the Scottish Parliament successfully lowered the voting age to 16 for persons voting in Scottish and local elections. Scottish Parliament further enfranchised all foreign nationals living in Scotland to participate in the country’s elections in 2020.
While other countries in the United Kingdom have not quite gone to the level that Scotland has, it has been quite the progression of voting rights from the Medieval Period to the present.
The pre-Confederation colonies of British North America included New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Canada West/Upper Canada (Ontario) and Canada East/Lower Canada (Québec) — British Columbia did not become a Crown colony until 1858. Before 1867, legislation outside British Columbia and Nova Scotia did not explicitly deny the franchise to Indigenous peoples. There were, however, a variety of qualifications for voters, such as age, British citizenship, ownership of specified property and payment of taxes. Status Indians lived on reserve lands owned by the Crown and received annuities from Indian Treaties. These liabilities effectively disqualified them from exercising the franchise.
There were exceptions to the rule. If male Indians in Canada West and Canada East met the criteria set down in An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian tribes in this Province (1857), and later, An Act respecting Civilization and Enfranchisement of certain Indians (1859), they could voluntarily relinquish their Indian status (a process called enfranchisement). They would then be able to vote, as long as they met existing qualifications. This legislation was in accordance with the government’s pre-Confederation policy of assimilation. Indian peoples were encouraged to give up traditional ways, acquire property and assume the responsibilities and civil rights of British subjects. In the view of government officials, Indian peoples were in the process of becoming citizens.
The Métis faced no legislative restrictions on voting. If they were engaged in the political process, they could vote if they possessed the basic qualifications. The Inuit, however, did not have the right to vote because they inhabited northern lands that were under the direct political control and authority of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
At Confederation, the federal franchise was determined by provincial franchise requirements. Disenfranchisement at the provincial level also meant disenfranchisement at the federal level. Therefore, status Indians, unless voluntarily enfranchised, were still precluded from voting in federal elections. Officially, Indian peoples were considered to be wards of the federal government, a legal status similar to that of minors.
The 1876 Indian Act consolidated laws affecting Indians. Section 86(1) introduced the principle of compulsory enfranchisement, that said any Indian who received a university degree or became a medical doctor, lawyer or clergyman, was automatically enfranchised. The termination of Indian status meant that, if property qualifications were met, an Indian could vote in federal elections. Few Indians met the criteria for compulsory enfranchisement. Therefore, most Indians were still barred from voting federally.
In the spring of 1885, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald introduced the Electoral Franchise Act. Macdonald was prepared originally to extend the federal vote to all Indians — whether they were enfranchised or not — under the same conditions imposed on British subjects. However, after the North-West Resistance, the legislation was amended to exclude all Indian peoples resident in “Manitoba, British Columbia, Keewatin, and the North-West Territories, and any Indian on any reserve elsewhere in Canada who is not in possession and occupation of a separate and distinct tract of land in such reserve, and whose improvements on such separate tract are not of the value of at least one hundred and fifty dollars.” These arrangements remained in effect until 1898, when the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, fearing the vote of Tory Indians (those who supported the Conservative party), reverted to the arrangements that existed before the Electoral Franchise Act.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, many Indigenous peoples volunteered for military service in Canada and overseas. Under the provisions of the Military Voters Act of 1917, Indians serving in the armed forces could vote in federal elections until they were demobilized. There was little pressure on the federal government, either from the general public or Indigenous peoples, to extend the franchise. This situation remained unchanged through the Great Depression.
Impact of the Second World War (1939–45)
In 1942, the federal government established a House of Commons Special Committee on Reconstruction and Re-establishment. The purpose of the Committee was to look into the prospective economic, social, and political conditions in postwar Canadian society. The advent of the welfare state in 1942 with the introduction of unemployment insurance also necessitated an assessment of existing policies and programs.
The Committee determined that the most neglected social group in Canadian society was Indigenous peoples. The economic and health conditions on reserves were deplorable, and federally implemented educational and administrative policies were culturally destructive. These were issues that pan-Indigenous organizations such as the League of Indians of Canada sought to address during the interwar years. Indigenous veterans of the Second World War, who served in the Canadian armed forces with distinction and received the federal franchise during the war as a result, returned to Canada seeking social and political change. Some sought to extend the right to vote to all Indigenous peoples (see Aboriginal People: Political Organization and Activism).
The Special Joint Committee on the Indian Act (1946–48)
In 1946, Parliament established a Special Joint Committee on the Indian Act. Indigenous leaders, representing First Nations and political associations, were called to testify. Indigenous opinion was divided on acquiring the federal vote, fearing loss of Indian status, loss of treaty rights and loss of exemption from taxation. After three years of public hearings, the Committee produced a final report in 1948. The goal of Indian policy was recast from assimilation to integration. In view of the new policy slant, the Committee recommended that Indian peoples be allowed to vote in federal elections.
Politicians were apprehensive about sharing power. In May 1950, Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent consulted his cabinet colleagues concerning Indigenous suffrage. Walter Harris, minister of citizenship and immigration, circulated a memorandum showing the “substantial concentrations of Indians” in certain ridings across the country, including Skeena, Kamloops, Athabaska, Meadow Lake, Churchill, Norquay, Algoma East, Brant-Wentworth, Kenora-Rainy River, Port Arthur, and Châteauguay-Huntingdon-Laprairie. C.D. Howe, minister of trade and commerce, effectively put an end to the voting initiative, fearing that Indians living on reserves in proximity to his Port Arthur riding might tip a federal election in favour of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).
Consequently, status Indians were not eligible to vote in federal elections throughout the 1950s. Their opinion continued to be divided on its perceived benefits. With the election of John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative government in June 1957, the political landscape changed. Diefenbaker immediately appointed James Gladstone, a Kainai (Blood) Indian from the Treaty 7 area of southern Alberta, to the Senate. Gladstone was Canada’s first Indigenous member of Parliament. Diefenbaker then turned his attention to administrative and political reforms.
Inuit Gain the Right to Vote (1950)
In 1950, the Inuit were officially qualified to vote in federal elections. However, most Inuit had no means to exercise the franchise because they lived in isolated communities. Until ballot boxes were placed in more Inuit communities in 1962, the Inuit were effectively unable to vote. For this reason, many cite 1962 as the first year in which Inuit gained the franchise.
Status Indians Gain the Federal Vote (1960)
Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a civil libertarian, and long-time critic of Indian administration, established a Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on Indian Affairs in 1959 to investigate Indian administration. In early 1958, Diefenbaker’s government began drafting the Canadian Bill of Rights. With the Bill of Rights’ emphasis on equal rights for all Canadians, Indians could hardly be denied the right to vote.
On 31 March 1960, portions of Section 14(2) of the Canada Elections Act were repealed in order to grant the federal vote to status Indians. First Nations people could now vote without losing their Indian status.
Indian reaction to Diefenbaker’s initiative was mixed. Many Indigenous peoples feared that the act of voting in federal elections would mean loss of historic rights and Indian status. For many years, Indigenous turnout at federal elections was low.
Politicians were also concerned about the enfranchisement of Indigenous peoples. While they wanted Indigenous peoples to integrate into postwar Canadian society, they feared their political impact. Diefenbaker, like St-Laurent, was no exception. He quietly engaged army veteran Chief Joseph Dreaver of the Mistawasis First Nation to visit reserves in Saskatchewan, supposedly to explain the findings of the Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Indian Affairs. However, Dreaver’s real assignment was to assess the electoral strength of the recently formed New Democratic Party (formerly the CCF) among Indigenous peoples. Internally, Indian Affairs Branch officials, as in 1950, examined federal ridings where there was a significant Indian population in an attempt to assess the impact of the new “Indian vote.”
Indigenous Women’s Suffrage
The vote for Indigenous women (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) has been framed by the issues of colonialism and gender discrimination. The process of receiving the vote has been connected to enfranchisement, both voluntary and involuntary, meaning that Indigenous women were afforded political participation and Canadian citizenship rights at the cost of Indigenous rights (see Indigenous Women and the Franchise).
Voting in Provincial and Territorial Elections
As in federal elections, the Métis could vote in provincial elections if they met voter qualifications, such as age and ownership of property.
At various times after Confederation, all provinces except Nova Scotia and Newfoundland passed legislation that in one way or another disqualified status Indians from voting. However, after the Second World War, status Indians could vote in all provincial and territorial elections: British Columbia (1949), Manitoba (1952), Ontario (1954), Saskatchewan (1960), New Brunswick (1963), Prince Edward Island (1963), Alberta (1965), Québec (1969), the Northwest Territories and Yukon (1960).
Inuit became eligible to vote in territorial and provincial elections in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Inuit were encouraged to participate in local government and administrative structures such as the Government of the Northwest Territories’ regional councils (Baffin Regional Council), town and hamlet councils, and housing authorities. Today, the Inuit form the majority of voters in four northern regions created as a result of comprehensive land claim settlements: Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut. In addition, the Nunavut territory, which was established by the Nunavut Act in 1993 and became a constitutional entity on 1 April 1999, is another example of the achievements of Indigenous self-government.
Impact of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)
Universal suffrage at the federal and provincial levels of government is enshrined in Section 3 of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” This clause applies to First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit.
First Nations Self-Governance
Federal Indian legislation in 1869 and 1876 formed the basis for First Nations governance. The powers of chiefs and councils expanded gradually over the years. In recent decades, a variety of Indigenous self-government models have emerged.
According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada sources, approximately 235 First Nations in Canada conduct elections under the Indian Act and Indian Band Election Regulations. Thirty-eight are considered self-governing, while the remaining First Nations select their leaders according to their own community or custom leadership selection process. The First Nations Elections Act came into force in 2015. First Nations are determining whether this new election system suits community needs.
The 2015 Federal Election
Some sources indicate that in the 2015 federal election, voter turnout in some Indigenous communities was up 270 per cent. There were a record 54 Indigenous candidates. Ten Indigenous people were elected to the House of Commons: eight Liberal and two NDP. Two were selected as Cabinet ministers: Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and Hunter Tootoo, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. While some argue that the 2015 federal election demonstrates the voting power of Indigenous peoples in Canada, other Indigenous peoples argue that voting in federal elections will not provide them with the sovereignty, jurisdiction, and right of self-determination that they seek.
It took 84 years after Confederation for status Indians and other Indigenous groups in Canada to gain the franchise. Today, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples not only vote but also participate in federal, provincial, territorial and local politics. The history of Indigenous suffrage in Canada demonstrates how concepts of citizenship, as defined by gender, ethnicity and social class, among other factors, have become more inclusive. It also illustrates that, for many Indigenous peoples, gaining the right to vote has not solved pressing socio-economic and socio-political issues, such as disputes over land titles and control over resources. Indigenous suffrage is part of a larger discussion about Canadian citizenship, Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous rights.
About a week ago, more than 100 American scholars who specialize in democracy studies unveiled a joint public statement warning that the United States' system of government is "now at risk." As part of their efforts, the scholars, many of whom have devoted much of their lives to studying the breakdowns in democracies abroad, pleaded with lawmakers to act.
"We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards," the experts wrote, apparently referring to the standards Democrats hope to establish in the pending For the People Act legislation.
One of the signatories was Harvard's Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of How Democracies Die, who told The New Yorker's Susan Glasser that threats against the U.S. democracy "are much worse than we expected" when he and Steven Levitsky first wrote the book in 2018. Ziblatt added that current conditions are "much more worrisome."
It was against this backdrop that President Biden delivered Memorial Day remarks last week describing democracy as the "soul of America" that all of us must fight to protect. The president soon after called for June to be "a month of action on Capitol Hill," specifically on the issue of voting rights. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told members that they should prepared to vote this month on the For the People Act, which he said is "essential to defending our democracy."
Yesterday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced that his party's top legislative priority would die by his hand.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday that he will not vote for S.1, known as the For The People Act, the massive elections and ethics reform package Democrats have proposed. The announcement immediately imperils the bill, which is universally opposed by Republicans and would require elimination of the Senate filibuster to be passed. The legislation was passed in the House this year.
In an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the conservative Democrat didn't identify any substantive problems with the legislation, other than to denounce the bill as "partisan."
The superficiality of the indictment was jarring: Manchin would have the public believe that any important proposal that Republicans don't like is by definition "partisan," which in turn renders the bill unacceptable, regardless of merit. It's a governing model that says the majority party must give the minority party veto power over efforts to shield our system of government, even as that party takes a sledgehammer to democracy in states nationwide.
The West Virginian appeared on Fox News yesterday morning and added, in reference to his Senate Republican colleagues, "I'm just hoping they are able to rise to the occasion to defend our country and support our country and make sure that we have a democracy for this republic of all the people." In the same interview, the conservative Democrat went on to say, "I’m going to continue to keep working with my bipartisan friends and hopefully we can get more of them."
Note the repetitious use of the word "hope." Manchin, after already having seen GOP senators discredit his preferred approach to legislating, is "just hoping" that the party actively opposed to voting rights changes its mind.
The plan is not to have the majority party govern to preserve democracy rather, the plan is to hope that Republican opponents of democracy see the light before it's too late. What could possibly go wrong?
The disconnect between the seriousness of the threat and Manchin's aspirational longing is jarring because the scope and scale of the Republican Party's campaign is so severe. As part of the most aggressive attacks against our democracy in generations, GOP officials are placing indefensible hurdles between Americans and ballot boxes through voter-suppression measures. At the same time, the party is hijacking election administration systems. And actively undermining public confidence in election results. And positioning far-right, anti-election ideologues to serve as Secretaries of State, whose offices oversee elections. And targeting poll workers. And exploring ways to make it more difficult for Americans to turn to the courts in the hopes of protecting voting rights. And intensifying voter-roll purges. And empowering heavy-handed poll watchers. And preparing to exploit gerrymandering to create voter-proof majorities.
And laying the groundwork to allow officials to overturn election results Republicans don't like.
The New York Times' Michelle Goldberg wrote last week, "This gap between the scale of the catastrophe bearing down on us and the blithe refusal of [Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema] to help is enough to leave one frozen with despair."
It's easy to relate to the sentiment. We're watching one of the nation's major political parties incrementally chip away at our system, with the explicit goal of giving its members political power whether they earn it at the ballot box or not. Much of that same party is moving quickly away from the idea that Americans resolve political disputes through free and fair elections.
We're simultaneously watching one senator hope that opponents of voting rights magically decide to strengthen voting rights. If he's mistaken, the ability of Americans to vote will suffer -- and that's a price that senator is prepared to pay.
Americans can be thankful such thinking didn't prevail when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act 1965 -- over the objections of segregationists -- or in 1869, when Congress approved the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, indifferent to its "partisan" nature.
The first paragraph of Manchin's op-ed yesterday began, "The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics. Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner."
The senator seems oddly unaware of the irony: Republicans are acting in a partisan manner to gut voting rights, which Manchin believes is bad for democracy. Manchin has the power to prevent this from happening, but he doesn't want to use it -- because it might require him to act in a partisan manner, even if that's good for democracy.
In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that the conservative Democrat continues to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and Manchin appears to have secured Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) backing for the legislation. There is no reason to believe the West Virginian stands with many Republicans in active opposition to voting rights.
But as a practical matter, the end result is unavoidable: the odds of finding nine more Senate Republicans willing to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are roughly zero, and Manchin continues to rule out the possibility of restoring the chamber to a majority-rule institution. That means, of course, that this bill will inevitably die, and our democracy will continue to grow weaker with each new GOP attack.
The scholars of democracy concluded last week, "History will judge what we do at this moment." Joe Manchin is prepared to be remembered by history as the senator who did little more than hope as his country's democracy unraveled.