Enfranchisement and Representation: Italy’s 1912 Quasi-Universal Suffrage Reform

Party affiliation and personal social background are powerful explanatory variables of politicians’ policy preferences. But do voting rights affect the identity of policy-makers? Is the extension of political rights reflected in the composition of elected assemblies? I address this question studying an electoral reform which was passed in Italy in the early XX century. Until 1912 voting rights were restricted on the basis of income and literacy. This was not a small restriction in a country in which about two thirds of the population was illiterate. The 1912 reform granted the franchise to all males aged 30 and above, while keeping the pre-existing restrictions for males aged 21-30. This was one of the most extensive franchise extensions in European history, almost tripling the electorate and granting voting rights to a large part of the adult male population, leaving only about half a million adult males disenfranchised. My analysis studies electoral district data comparing the first post-reform election (1913) with the last pre-reform (1909) and reveals that the consequences of this significant enfranchisement on political representation were remarkably minimal.

The Power of Elites Endures

Despite the substantial increase in the number of eligible voters, the reform had little impact on the representation of left-wing social reformers in parliament, the so-called Estrema (Socialists, Republicans and Radicals). Although their vote share increased, their parliamentary presence was unaffected by the inclusion of poorer and less educated voters. Moreover, the reform did not diminish the legislative representation of traditional elites, such as aristocrats, landowners, or dynastic politicians. Electoral competition also remained largely unaffected. So, how did the elites manage to maintain their grip on power? The study documents two key strategies employed by conservative forces to counteract the effects of enfranchisement.

  • Political violence and intimidation. There was a surge in reported incidents of political violence during the 1913 electoral campaign, particularly in swing districts. Armed groups prevented supporters of left-wing parties from voting, and union premises were raided and destroyed, often with the tacit approval of the police. A detailed data collection of episodes of political violence gathered from newspaper sources reveals that left-wing candidates were more likely to lose votes or be defeated in districts that saw a surge in political violence.
  • The mobilization of Catholic voters. Between 1861 and 1870 Italy had been unified at the expense of, among others, the Catholic state. As a consequence, the Vatican did not recognize Italy and imposed a prohibition for Catholics to participate in Italian political life (non expedit). From the early 20th century, however, local bishops could demand a dispensation from the Pope, usually on the ground that Catholic votes were necessary to prevent the election of socialist (or other “subversive”) In 1913 this process of unofficial entry of Catholics in Italian politics accelerates suddenly. A secret alliance (known as Gentiloni pact) was struck between the Catholic Electoral Union and many conservative candidates. The pact involved suspending the Vatican’s prohibition on Catholic participation in politics in over two-thirds of electoral districts. In exchange, candidates who signed the pact committed to supporting pro-Catholic policies (for example promoting Catholic education in public schools, opposing divorce etc.), effectively mobilizing the Catholic vote in favour of conservative forces. My analysis of voting patterns reveals that the Gentiloni pact 1) was strategically suspended in districts where Estrema candidates were more vulnerable and 2) proved quite effective in defeating Estrema candidates.

Implications for Democratic Theory

My results suggest that de jure political equality does not mechanically translate into political representation. The absence of the expected effects on representation in the short run highlights the importance of political organizations and institutional details as well as the limits of theories which try to establish deterministic relations between democratic institutions and political outcomes.

A narrow focus on the rulebook, often posed as a crude contrast between democracies and autocracies, fails to capture the multifaceted nature of political processes and the substantial political inequalities that persist in spite of formal political equality. Importantly, democratic processes are affected by an unequal distribution of economic resources and by the ability of some social groups to disproportionately control the political processes in other ways.

In the case I analyse here, and arguably in many others, democratization is a process on which the existing elites retain full control. A better understanding of what drives democratic transitions requires therefore a careful consideration of the mechanisms used by elites to perpetuate their power.

Persuasion by using violence or propaganda constitute powerful antidotes to political equality available to economic and political elites in all democracies. The precise mechanisms discussed in this paper may be specific to the political situation of Italy in the early XX century, but the use of violence, institutional manipulation and propaganda are instead common to all regimes, making our main takeaways not so specific. Far from being anomalies of the early stages of democratization, these obstacles to a fair representation can be quite important to understand the current crisis of liberal democracies.

The main limitation of this study is instead that we are only able to consider short term effects. Although the impact of de jure political equalization could be small in the short run, it may nevertheless manifest its full effects only after some time, when the newly enfranchised voters become sufficiently organized, mobilized and informed.

In conclusion, the Italian reform of 1912 serves as a reminder that the path to effective political representation is often complex and fraught with obstacles. While formal democratic institutions constitute a crucial step, they are not a panacea for addressing inequalities or ensuring fair representation. Political organizations, informed civic engagement and a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of power are necessary to uphold the ideals of democracy.


Fig. 1: number of registered voters in Italy (1870-1924)

This blog piece is based on the forthcoming Journal of Politics article  “Enfranchisement and Representation: Evidence from the Introduction of “Quasi-Universal” Suffrage in Italy” by Valentino Larcinese.

The empirical analysis has been successfully replicated by the JOP and the replication files are available in the JOP Dataverse

About the Author

Valentino Larcinese is professor of public policy at the London School of Economics. He holds a laurea in Economic and Social Disciplines from Bocconi University and a PhD in Economics from LSE. His reseach interests include political economoy, democratization, information and mass media, redistribution and higher education. For more information, visit his website.