To make the most of electoral registers when researching your family history, it's important to understand how the right to vote slowly increased from only a small proportion of the population in the early 19th century to the right for everyone over the age of 21 to vote in 1928 (apart from prisoners and Members of the House of Lords!).
The Representation of the People Act of 1832 was a major change attempting to start the process of making the electoral system fairer, for example sweeping away the "rotten boroughs" where an MP was elected by only a handful of voters.
Part of this was to introduce Electoral Registers and make the rule that only people on register were eligible to vote in parliamentary and local elections. It also introduced standard rules to what made someone eligible to vote although it varied depending on whether you were a Borough voter or a County voter. In the case of Borough voters, men were eligible to vote if they were owners of property worth £10 a year. In the case of County voters, men were eligible if they either owned freehold property worth 40 shillings a year, were £10 copyholders (holding land from a manor), £10 leaseholders (as long as the lease was for 60 years or more) or were £50 tenants.
The act was specific that the vote was restricted to men by adding the word "male" in front of "person". There was an attempt in 1868 to argue that since in other laws such as taxation laws, it had been ruled that the term "man" must be held to include women, women were equally allowed to vote but this attempt failed, meaning a specific act of parliament would be required to give women the vote.
The 1832 act more than doubled the number of voters to just under 1 million men.
In 1857 it was estimated that 1.2 million out of an overall population of 28 million were entitled to vote. This archived book, The Law of the Hustings and Poll Booths from 1857 explains in detail eligibility to vote (and much more).
The 1867 Representation of the People Act extended the right to vote for borough voters to include all men who were owners or tenants of any dwelling house or were lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms, as long as they had been within the borough during the whole of the preceding twelve months. This extended the vote to about 1.5 million men.
Unmarried women were given the right to vote in local government elections so although they did not have the right to vote in Government Elections, for the first time their names appeared on electoral registers. Initially these were women ratepayers who until the reform of the married women's property law in 1882 (see an article here on Wikipedia) were very rare. Some men also had the right to vote in local but not national elections.
Secret balloting introduced, poll books no longer produced
Registers for parliamentary elections and for municipal elections can now be merged, later was compulsory. The registers for municipal elections (sometimes called Burgess Rolls) were essentially lists of ratepayers.
The 1884 Representation of the People Act effectively abolished the distinction between County and Borough and every male householder (over the age of 21) had the right to vote as well as occupiers of lands and tenements worth at least £10 and lodgers paying at least £10 a year. This added about 6 million men to the electoral registers. Those who occupied a dwelling house by virtue of any office, service or employment were also given the vote.
Note however that this right was restricted to one voter per householder so would exclude adult sons living at home or heads of shared households.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over 21 the right to vote and for the first time women were given the right to vote in Government Elections as long as they were over 30 and occupied as owners or tenants any land or premises in a constituency which with the exception of dwelling houses had to be of £5 yearly value. The franchise was also extended to wives who were over 30 of all husbands who were entitled to vote in local government elections and also to those who were university graduates.
There was much debate over the exact qualification required for women to vote but at the time, had it been extended to all women over 21 then the women voters would have outnumbered the men which was just a step too far - 10 years later this happened. Overall there were 8,479,156 women electors on the register for the December 1918 parliamentary elections (out of a total of 21,392,322), considerably more than the 6 million estimated when the act was being debated in parliament.
One exclusion brought in by the 1918 act was to disqualify from voting for five years anyone who was exempted from military service during the first world war as a conscientious objector (although there were grounds on which this disqualification could be removed).
Women over 21 were now eligible to vote, giving the vote to all adults at the age of 21.
The Business Premise qualification and the university qualification was abolished so now no person had more than one vote (although they could appear on more than one register).
Those reaching the voting age within the lifetime of the register start to be recorded
The voting age was lowered to 18 and also the electoral register now consistently includes all those who were not 18 but would reach 18 during the period of the register so that they could then vote on elections held on or after their 18th birthday.
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