Great Reform Act 1793

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The Adjustment of Electoral Representation Act, better known as the Great Reform Act (Statut o Stor Reform) was a 1793 Act of the Storting that reformed the system used to elect MPs.

Prior to 1793, the system for electing the Fulkskamer (Chamber of the People) was strongly biased in favour of rural areas and had changed little since the reign of Robert II. The 96 Provinces of Geadland (also known as earldoms) were represented by two members regardless of population. There were 136 elected seats given to cities, with an additional 10 cities also being represented by their mayor. There was severe malapportionment with some sparsely-populated rural areas and depopulated towns having the same level of representation of several major cities like Stanhorst.

The worst cases were the fikkstade ("pocket cities"), also known as rotten boroughs. These were places that were barely populated. These included Slochterpolder (12 voters) and Dunvik (17 voters), where settlements had been abandoned due to flooding. The sole requirements for voting for the provincial seats were that a person had to own land within its area; towns also had the option to allow additional reasons for allowing people to vote. Some towns had very progressive voting laws; Da Fugh was unique for having universal suffrage (although a woman's vote only counted for half the value of a man's vote), while Südport and Karkirk had universal male suffrage. A few other towns also allowed a small number of women to vote. On the other hand, the rotten boroughs were usually strongly influenced by the local baron, not helped by the fact that the votes were almost never secret. This meant that several members of the Adelskamer (Chamber of the Nobility) could obtain additional leverage in the lower chamber by using bribery and intimidation to ensure that their supporters (usually family members) would win the seat.

The liberal factions had put forward the Petition for fair representation shortly before the May 1792 general election. Out of the 377 MPs elected, 203 were signatories (including 4 representing the rotten boroughs). After Bernard den Burgh was elected as Speaker, King David IV accepted his advice to dismiss the current conservative-dominated Council of State and appoint a liberal-dominated government. The Reform Bill was passed by the Fulkskamer but as expected, it was rejected by the Adelskamer. Undeterred, Den Burgh reintroduced the bill within a few days, while the government threatened to call and election if it was rejected in the Adelskamer. The bill was then rejected. Only 39 of its 129 members had supported the Reform Bill, including the 14 bishops. Some of the peers supported the bill because they were jealous of the extra influence their colleagues had through the rotten boroughs.

When Den Burgh and the government asked the King to create some peers to ensure the bill's passage, the King initially refused. He argued that the Fulkskamer should respect the Adelskamer's decision or at least seek a compromise, rather than attempting to force it through. The entire Council of State resigned in protest on 14 December. The King then re-appointed a conservative government, but Den Burgh retaliated with a threat to block supply. In addition, the demise of the liberal government caused rioting to break out in several cities around Christmas. The King then relented and agreed to support the Liberals on the condition that a general election should be held first. The Fulkskamer was then dissolved on 13 January. In the ensuing March 1793 general election, the signatories of the petition took 58% of the vote and won 213 of the 377 seats, the closest equivalent to a landslide that the unreformed voting system could give.

There was still the resistance in the Adelskamer to overcome. The King had persuaded 7 more members to support it, but the bill would still be defeated 83-46 in the existing chamber. He then issued an ultimatum, threatening to flood the Adelskamer with up to 50 Liberal peers unless they passed the bill. When the new Fulkskamer took office on 5 April, the bill was introduced for a third time. The Adelskamer decided not to vote down the bill but instead pass a "wrecking amendment" that was passed by a 79-50 margin that would stop the rotten boroughs from being abolished. In response, the King then announced that he would ennoble 50 liberal MPs. The first 20 peerages were signed into law on 22 May, after a week of negotiations. The King was in talks to create more, before the Chancellor and leading members of the chamber announced that they would drop their resistance and would no longer oppose the bill. The Adelskamer voted to scrap the wrecking amendment and pass the bill by a 46-9 margin (a few nobles rejected the climb-down and voted against the bill). The act was signed into law by the King on 7 June (Ödetsdag).

The effects of the act were:

  • 43 rotten boroughs were abolished and merged with the provincial seats.
  • Large cities which were home to more than 1% of the population were subdivided into single-member districts. The 10 mayor MPs were no longer entitled to seats in parliament.
  • Other boroughs were represented at large with 1-3 seats.
  • The cities could still decide on the franchise and voting system, as long as the voting system was politically neutral.
  • The provincial seats were distributed. The least populous provinces were merged with others, while other provinces were reduced from 2 seat to 1 seats, while the largest were subdivided into 1-2 member "sub-provinces".
  • The system for electing county seats was standardised to first past the post. The provinces and sub-provinces with two members elected their MPs separately.
  • The restrictions that limited many Protestants from voting or standing in elections were lifted.
  • The franchise was extended from covering 10% of the adult male population to covering 20% of the adult male population.
  • The term of the Fulkskamer was reduced from 7 years to 6 years.

The Great Reform Act made elections significantly fairer. Prior to its passage, some cities had 1 MP for as many as 100,000 voters while some uninhabited areas were still represented in Parliament. The new system still left some anomalies in place, but the largest-to-smallest ratio was reduced to 5:1. The act came into force on 9 November. Three months later, the Council of State requested for a dissolution of parliament and the King complied. The April 1794 general election produced a landslide victory for the liberals. Thanks to the reforms to the voting system, the various liberal movements would continually control the chamber continuously until the collapse of the Old Kingdom in the 1840s.