According to PolitiFact, the United States is the oldest democracy. However, the 26th Amendment, guaranteeing that all citizens 18 and over can vote, was only ratified in 1971 and the Voting Rights act was passed in 1965. Did any other countries have universal suffrage, protected by laws, before the United States?

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    I guess it would depend on what you define a true democracy as. For instance the united states is at best a representative democracy since people vote on others to make decisions for them. However when it comes to the office of the president the votes are not for the person running for office but for people to cast a vote for president. To make it even more confusing those people are not even always required to vote the same way as the people voted either and they could chose who they decide.
    – Joe W
    Mar 5, 2019 at 0:28
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    "true" is indeed a problematic qualifier. On many levels. As is 'universal suffrage'. Why not let 16yo vote? Like South Africa did in 1890, Law No. 5? How much 'direct democracy' is in the United States? How many felons are exempt from universal suffrage in the US? Looks like you have to narrow this down? Mar 5, 2019 at 0:37
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    You really do need to specify what you mean. "Suffrage for any legally adult human citizen capable of understanding the voting process" is probably what you mean. This isn't something that currently is the case in most countries, including the US.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 5, 2019 at 0:52
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    @Obie2.0 who determines that though? In the south there was simple literacy tests (they where not that simple and designed to make people fail them) to keep certain people from voting.
    – Joe W
    Mar 5, 2019 at 2:34
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    No "true" Scotsman would even have to ask such a question.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Mar 5, 2019 at 2:51

1 Answer 1


Unclear on many levels and very US centric. "True democracy" is indeed a problematic qualifier. On many levels. As is 'universal suffrage'. Why not let 16 year olds vote? Like South Africa did in 1890, Law No. 5? Or Iran with 15 (until 2007).

How much 'direct democracy' is in the United States? How many felons are exempt from universal suffrage in the US?

  1. Oldest parliament still existing: Iceland 930 AD
  2. Oldest parliament in uninterrupted use: Isle of Man 979
  3. First universal suffrage (women's vote) in a state still existing: New Zealand 1893
  4. First universal suffrage ever: Pitcairn (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame (1789/1838) (Jad Adams: "Women and the Vote. A World History", Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014, p 24)
  5. First women candidates for country-wide elections Australia 1902, Finland 1906 with (19) female members of parliaments in 1907
  6. Oldest democracy still being one: San Marino 380 (With currently valid constitution-like documents from 16th century)

So is the USA the oldest democracy? According to the criteria that Politifact made up:

Our democracy is imperfect and always evolving, but that’s the nature of democracy. The changes, for better or worse, reflect the will of the people.

While the United States is not the first to include elements of democracy, it is the oldest existing nation with a constitutional government in which the people elect their own government and representatives.

That claim is "true": the US is the oldest US-style democracy. But this reasoning is constructed to exclude the other contenders and arguably difficult to project into the past, with slavery being one of the many stains on a thought-of 'clean' track record. The treatment of the 'Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth' being another.

Not even the official US foreign policy 'to foster democracy' is based on any consensual definition for 'what is a democracy?' (Horowitz 2006)

But according to the Economist Intelligence Report "Democracy Index 2017" (PDF), whihc analyses world government forms on a more universal level with objective criteria the same for all subjects investigated, the US isn't even in the club of 19 true, full democracies, at all!

Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only 4.5% reside in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016 (see Democracy Index 2017 by regime type, page 2). Around one-third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule, with a large share being in China.

On that list of 19 full democracies, in order: Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxemburg, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria, Mauritius, Malta, Uruguay, Spain,

The US fell below the threshold for a “full democracy” in 2016 and is now rated as a “ awed democracy”. The main cause of the US regression was a serious decline in public trust in US institutions in 2016. This year the country’s overall score remained the same, and the US remains in 21st place in the global rankings.

[The mutineers] took the ship to the uninhabited Pitcairn Island. Their descendants and occasional new arrivals continued to live there with, presumably, no form of government until a British captain stopped by in the HMS Fly in 1838 and the captain claimed the island for the Crown and provided them with ‘a few hasty regulations’.

The islanders had urged Captain Russel Elliott to impose some kind of order as they were subject to marauding crews of whaling ships who would come ashore and threaten to rape Pitcairn women, which obliged the men to neglect their crops so they could act as protectors.They felt the solution was the protection of the British Crown for the ninety-nine natives. Elliott thought they could best be protected ‘by conferring the stamps of authority on their election of a magistrate or elder, to be periodically chosen from among themselves, and answerable for his proceedings to Her Majesty’s Government’.

Captain Elliott’s feeling was to ‘least involve my own government’, and the best way to achieve this was to prescribe self-government for the islanders. He therefore said the island was to be governed by a magistrate

‘to be elected by the free votes of every native born on the island, male or female, who shall have attained the age of eighteen years; or, of persons who have resided five years on the island.’

Thus suffrage was universal, and based on residency alone, making it an advanced form of democracy. It had come about at a time of crisis for the community, and had been granted by a superior power which had nothing to lose and some slight gain by doing so. While there is no reference to the reasons why women were equally enfranchised, it was doubtless because they were already playing some part in community life; and there had to be sufficient numbers to make the fledgling democracy work.

(Jad Adams, op cit)

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    I'd love some details on Pitcairn universal suffrage!
    – gerrit
    Mar 5, 2019 at 17:09
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    Claims that the US democracy is flawed usually come from biased NGOs who's sole purpose of existence is to get more government grants. Not that the US democracy is perfect, but demoting it to a lower status because Trump was elected is a joke. Mar 6, 2019 at 3:02
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    @JonathanReez - Well, he's weakened certain aspects of democracy in the United States. He's constantly sought to expand executive power, denigrated various branches of the federal government along with journalism meant to keep him in check, provided global cover for dictators, and increased the synergy between the executive branch and Congress.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 6, 2019 at 9:29
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    @Obie2.0 Same can be said of Obama: so many EOs, his administration abused the IRS to hinder the Tea Party, he allowed spying on the campaign of a presidential candidate, and so on. The fact that it wasn't removed before 2016 but was in 2016 is a clear sign of bias.
    – Sjoerd
    Mar 6, 2019 at 17:19
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    @Sjoerd - That's a bit of an exaggeration. The executive orders, yes. But the "spying" was an FBI investigation of people in Trump's campaign that seemed to be based on legitimate grounds. As for the IRS behavior, that's not what people think: the IRS targeted political groups for extra scrutiny based on their names and descriptions: not just groups that had "Tea Party" in their names, but also descriptors like "Occupy" and "Green"
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 6, 2019 at 17:23

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