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Property qualifications are restrictions on voting rights that limit suffrage to people who own property. Such restrictions were widely used in many nations around the world until the 1800s, when a number of Western democracies began striking down limits on voting rights. Certain populations continued to be barred from voting until the early 20th century. Today, most nations around the world offer universal suffrage to all citizens over a certain age, with some exceptions; some bar felons and people with severe intellectual disabilities from voting.
Some nations that used property qualifications historically didn’t just limit the right to vote to property owners. They also allocated the vote with respect to how much property people owned. Thus, people who owned larger tracts of land had more weight in elections. This was particularly common with elections for regional office like city or town council members. Major landholders in a district could consequently have a large impact on the electoral process.
Property qualifications limited voting rights to the people with the most power in society. Nations with such restrictions also usually barred women and people of color from voting, which meant those who held property in their own right still couldn’t exercise full civil rights. Justifications for this practice varied; in the early United States, for example, it was argued that since the only taxes that existed were on property, property owners were the only taxpayers with a right to contribute to the electoral process to determine how their monies were spent.
Changes in social and cultural views about voting in the 19th century led to a gradual loosening of restrictions on voting rights. Property qualifications were some of the first restrictions to be removed in many democracies. Regions like individual US states extended voting rights to all white men of age. People of color were barred from the vote in some regions even if they owned property, and women of all races were among the last to obtain suffrage in many nations.
National laws concerning elections may specifically bar the use of property qualifications to ensure that individual jurisdictions cannot limit voting rights in this way. Many national governments recognize this as an unreasonable restriction on suffrage because people who do not own property still participate in society and are affected by government policies. Other restrictions of suffrage like literacy tests and poll taxes may also be addressed in voting policy with the goal of protecting universal suffrage.
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