Nature of the electoral function

Importance of the Electoral Function. The Constitution of the electorate and the organization of the processes through which it exercises its functions are questions of paramount importance in a system of representative government, for the reason that it constitutes the very foundation and essence of that system. As will be pointed out in the following article, the electorate is not only the body of citizens which in most democratic states determines in the last analysis the form of government of the state and chooses those who guide and direct its affairs, but in modern democracies it has, in the opinion of many writers, acquired the character of an organ of government itself.

The functions of the electorate are exercised through the process of voting, those who exercise, or are entitled to exercise the function, are called voters or electors, the instrumentality through which it is usually exercised is the ballot (in French, bulletin) and the meeting at which it is done is the election.

Theories as to the Nature of the Suffrage :

Regarding the nature of the suffrage there have been two general theories. First it has been regarded as a natural and inherent right of every citizen at least of every adult male citizen-who is not disqualified by reason of his own reprehensible conduct or unfitness a right. which belongs to him by virtue of his membership in the state. Second, it has been regarded rather as a public office or function conferred upon the citizen for reasons of social expediency, and because the welfare of society is in large measure dependent upon the wise discharge of the function, it is conferred only upon those who, it is believed, are fit and capable of so discharging it.

Is Suffrage a Natural Right :

The view that the suffrage is a natural right of the citizen dominated the political philosophy especially of the United States and Fiance during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The idea may be said to have had its roots in the natural law doctrines of the Middle Ages and especially in the teachings of the monarchomachs (notably Marsiglio, Ockam, and others) of the sixteenth century. With the development of the doctrines of the Social compact and of popular sovereignty, the notion of the abstract right of the individual to a share in the government of the state became a logical principle of that philosophy.

In America it found supporters in the leaders of the Revolutionary movement, notably Otis and Paine, and the doctrine may be deduced from the declarations of rights of some of the first state constitutions, such as those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, relative to the ,nature of the body politic as a compact and the inherent rights of the citizen. In France the notion appears to have found a supporter. in Montesquieu, who declared that all the inhabitants ought to have a right of voting at the election of representatives, except such as are in so mean a situation as to be deemed to have no will of their own.

From Rousseau’s doctrine that sovereignty resided in the people and that, in consequence, every citizen had an inalienable right to participate in the exercise of that sovereignty, the natural right of voting followed as a logical necessity. This doctrine was enunciated by various leaders of the French Revolution, notably Robespierre, Petion, and Condorcet. Sovereignty, said Robespierre, resides in all the people, and-every citizen,whoever he may he, should have a share in representation and the right to participate in the formation of the law by which he is bound.

Principles of French Revolutionary Constitutions :

Nevertheless, the national Assembly of 17 89, while proclaiming Rousseau’s dogma of popular sovereignty, more ldgical than he was, did not consider that it necessarily required the active participation of all the citizens in the eXercise of that sovereignty, and the constitution that it formulated and promulgated in 1791 made a distinction between “active citizens” and “passive citizens,” the latter being allowed no share in the election of representatives.

Every Frenchman was a “passive citizen” this was a right those who fulfilled certain conditions were “active citizens,” electors, this was a function. The idea which dominated the assembly, says Duguit, was that the suffrage is not a right but an office (fanction). Every person living in society was recognized as having an individual right, superior to all positive law and imposing itself upon the legislature, the right of a citizen.

But this was not the right to vote,  it was a right to be recognized as a component part of the nation, which latter was the sole titulary of the public power, the citizen could vote only if the legislature had conferred upon him this function. It should be said, however, that there were vigorous protests against this distinction, which denied to some citizens what was regarded as an inherent, natural right of all, and in the Convention of 1792 the radicals who had the ascendancy gave full effect to the theory of suffrage as an abstract right.

Article 27 of the Declaration of Rights voted by the Convention affirmed that sovereignty resided essentially in the whole people and each citizen had an equal right to participate in its exercise. This doctrine was definitely embodied in the constitution of 1793 (adopted by the people by referendum though never put into effect), which declared every male person 21 years of age born and domiciled in France to be a citizen and an elector. The logic of this philosophy would have required the extension of the same right to women, and Condorcet in particular endeavored to have it so extended.

Rejection by the French of the Natural Right Doctrine :

This doctrine of the natural and inherent right of every citizen without distinction to exercise the electoral function was never proclaimed in any subsequent French constitution. That of 1795 embodied substantially the principle enunciated in the constitution of 1795. Every Frenchman was declared to be a citizen, but voting was treated as a function and its exercised was conferred only upon those who fulfilled certain conditions, among others, the payment of taxes. Thomas Paine and other radical members, however, vigorously defended the doctrine that voting is a natural right of every citizen.

In 1848, when universal suffrage was first actually put into operation, the arguments advanced in favor of it were similar to those of 17 89-1791, but the dogma of the natural right of all citizens to vote was not proclaimed in the text of the constitution, on the contrary, the provision of Article 28 that the electoral law to be passed by the legislature should determine the causes for which Frenchmen might be deprived of the right to vote was inconsistent with the doctrine of the inherent right of all French citizens to the suffrage.

View that Suffrage is an Office or Function :

The view which practically all writers on political science adopt today in regard to the nature of the suffrage is that it is an office or function which is conferred by the state upon only such persons as are  believed to be most capable of exercising it for the public good, and not a natural right which belongs without distinction to all citizens of the state. The suffrage is a franchise or privilege  as to whether the exercise of it is a moral duty, and whether it ought to be a legal obligation Opinions differ.

In practice, all electoral systems, even in the most radical democratic countries, are constituted on this principle. Nevertheless it is still the view of the masses who have no taste or talent for drawing fine distinctions, that every man does have a sort of primordial or natural right to vote, a right of which he cannot justly be deprived on grounds of alleged incapacity. It was partly on this ground that the demand for the enfranchisement  of women was based.

Is the Exercise of the Electoral office a Duty ?

If the electoral function is an office or trust conferred or enjoined upon the individual in the interest of the social good, it would seem to follow logically that it is his duty to perform the functions with which he has been invested. Ought he to be obliged, therefore, by law to vote? That is, should what is generally admitted to be a moral or civic duty be made a legal obligation, the neglect of which should be punishable as is the refusal of the citizen to perform jury service and, as is not uncommon, to discharge the duties of certain offices to which he may have been elected or appointed ?

Writers and statesmen are by no means lacking Who hold the affirmative Opinion. Where a representative democratic system of government is found, it is especially important, so it is argued, that all those who have been-invested with the electoral franchise should participate in the choice of public officers or in referendal elections on legislative projects or questions of public policy submitted to them, otherwise the results of the election may not accurately represent the real will of the electorate.

Compulsory Voting :

In practice, however, compulsory voting has rarely been adopted by states. At the present time it appears to be in force only in Belgium, Romania, Argentina, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and some of the Swiss cantons. It was embodied in the constitution of Belgium (Art. 48) in 1893 in consequence of the large abstentions on the part of the voters (they were 30 per cent in 1884 and 16 per cent in the important election of 1892 abstentions which no doubt were due in part to the necessity which the voters were under of repairing to the capital town (chef lieu) of the district.

The penalties prescribed for failure to vote were comparatively light, ranging from a reprimand or a line of from one to three francs for the first offense to disfranchisement and disqualification from holding office for the fourth offense. The penalties proved fairly effective and the abstentions fell at once to about 6 percent and have continued approximately the same ever since. The provision for compulsory voting was retained in 1921 when the system of plural voting was discarded, and there appears to be little popular demand for its abolition.

In Spain compulsory voting was introduced by law in 1907 The law required all males 25 years of age, except judges, notaries, priests, and men over seventy years of age, to vote unless absent from the district or sick. Failure to do so was punishable by publication of the name of the delinquent as a mark of censure, by a two per cent increase of his taxes, by the loss of one per cent of his salary if he was in the employ of the state, and in case of repetition of the offense, by the loss of the right to hold public office in the future. The law is said to have been largely a dead letter as appears from the fact that as many as 80 per cent of the electors in some country districts abstained from voting.

Compulsory voting was introduced by law in Argentina in 1912, where it is said to be successful, and, by constitutional amendment in the Netherlands in 1917, in the latter country for the same reason which had led to its adoption in Belgium in 1893. The penalty for failure to vote in the Netherlands is 3 florins for the first offense and 10 for each subsequent offense. On account of widespread opposition to the law, however, it has been difficult to enforce it. It is said that in Amsterdam and the Hague, especially, in a recent election large numbers of persons united into groups for the purpose of turning the system into ridicule by voting for absurd candidates.

By a constitutional amendment in 1925 the obligatory clause was removed from the constitution and the matter is now regulated by statute, for the repeal of which there is much demand. By the electoral law of February 29, 1920, compulsory voting was introduced into Czechoslovakia. The obligation does not apply, however, to voters over 70 years of age or to sick persons. The penalty prescribed is severe a maximum line of 5000 crowns or a term of imprisonment varying from 24 hours to one month. The constitution of Romania (1923) established obligatory suffrage for elections of both houses of parliament (Arts. 64, 68). In some of the German states, prior to the World War, the system of obligatory voting was also in force.

In France, where the rule of obligatory voting has existed since 1875 in the case of the electors who choose the Senate, there has been a movement recently for the extension of the system to all elections. In 1921 Professor Joseph Barthelemy, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, introduced a bill for this purpose and the commission to which it was referred made a favorable report, but apparently it never came to a vote in the chamber. The question of introducing compulsory voting in Massachusetts was discussed in connection with the recent revision of the constitution of that state and there appears to be some sentiment in favor of it in England, where 4,650,000 of the 14,000,000 electors abstained from voting in the parliamentary elections of 1922.

Objections to the Principle of Compulsory Voting :

The principle of compulsory voting is condemned by nearly all political writers on the ground that it cannot be defended upon considerations either of sound political science or of public policy. It assumes that voting is a public legal duty instead of a privilege or a moral duty. However reprehensible may be the conduct of the citizen who neglects his civic obligations and his public duties as a member of society, it is hardly the province of the state to punish by legal means the non-performance of such duties.

The value of universal suffrage depends on its being regarded as at once a privilege and a moral duty. If the exercise of it were required -by law, the privilege would, it. is contended, be exercised as a mere form and without regard to the public good, very much as it was by the sans-culottes of Paris, who were paid for their attendance at the elections during the French Revolution. The effect would be a marked lowering of the character of the privilege. Moreover, compulsory votes would be more easily purchasable and there is danger that they might come to be estimated by their market value.

Plural and Weighted Voting :

The modern democratic principle is that every adult man, if not also every adult woman, not disqualified for reasons of character or incapacity, should be entitled to one vote.  Does it also require that this vote shall count in the determination of the result the same as the vote of every other elector, or that no elector shall have more than one vote ?

Modern theory and general practice is in favor of the affirmative view. Systems of plural or weighted voting, sometimes called differential voting, however, have not been lacking. In 1893, by an amendment to the constitution, Belgium introduced such a system. Every male citizen twenty five years of age and a resident at least one year in the commune was allowed one vote,  a supplementary vote was allowed to every man who had reached the age of thirty-five years and had legitimate offspring and paid a tax of 5 francs to the state , also to every landed proprietor twenty-five years of age the value of whose land aggregated at least 2000 francs.

Two supplementary votes were allowed to every citizen twenty-five years of age who possessed a diploma from an institution of higher learning or a certificate showing the completion of a course or secondary education or who held or had held a public office or who practiced or had practiced a private profession which presupposed that the holder possessed at least a secondary education. No one, however, might have more than three votes in the aggregate.

In practice the system favored especially the peasants, priests, public officials, and the professional classes, and perpetuated the control of the Catholic party and reduced the strength of the Socialist party, the majority of whose members were entitled to but a single vote. Beginning some time before the World War, a strong demand for the abolition of what was regarded as an undemocratic and unjust system of suffrage, because it gave a majority of the votes to a minority of the voters, became widespread throughout Belgium.

Socialist demonstrations and nation-wide strikes were organized and directed against it, and the popular slogan, “One man one vote” was a feature of every election campaign.  Finally when the constitution was revised in 1921 one of the democratic reforms which were introduced was the abolition of plural voting.

Merits of Weighted Voting :

The Belgian system represented an effort to combine the advantages of universal suffrage with a scheme of what Sidgwick calls “weighted voting”  with a view to mitigating the evils believed to be inherent in a system of universal suffrage, by preventing the ignorant and uninstructed mass of the community from overriding the intelligent and more capable few. It rested on the assumption that there age some individuals in the state whose votes ought to be given a greater weight in the choice of public officials than those of the rest, that while every one ought to have a vote, some ought to have more than one.

It recognized, in short, that some men are wiser and i better fitted to choose, and that some men’s opinions should count for more than other in ascertaining the general will. It was an application of Taine’s doctrine that voices should not be “counted” they should be “weighed.” The Belgian system took into consideration the elements of property, education, family relation, and occupation or profession in determining the weight of a man’s voice in the government.

The Objection to Weighted Voting :

The chief objection to such a system of suffrage lies in the difficulty of finding a just and practical standard or criterion by which the weight of different votes may be graduated. Any scheme for assigning different values to the votes of the property owner, the man of education, the head of a family, the professional man, etc., must be largely arbitrary. The possession of property, for example, is often the result of accident rather than of thrift, economy, or capacity, and even if it were otherwise, popular Opinion is so averse to the basing of political rights upon wealth that the scheme would be hard to defend in a democracy.

It is sometimes said in support of the argument that the wealthy have more interests to be protected than the poor and should therefore be given a proportionately larger share in the choice of those who govern. But to this it may be replied that the power of self-help among the rich is correspondingly greater, and hence the need of state protection is less than in the case of the poor.

Weighted voting for the wealthy, moreover, tends toward the establishment of class government and government by the wealthy few at that-the most obnoxious of all forms of government. The nature of one’s profession or occupation is regarded by some as a fairly just and practical test for determining the weight of a vote. Thus, it is Said, an employer is likely to possess more ability and intelligence than an employee a banker, a merchant, or a manufacturer, more than an artisan one engaged in a learned profession, more than one engaged in an unskilled trade  and so so.

Mill’s Defense :

John Stuart Mill, who was an advocate of the scheme of weighted voting, expressed the opinion that two or more votes might property be allowed to every person who exercises any of these superior functions. A system of plural voting in which a superior weight was assigned to the vote of the educated man was strongly recommended by Mill as a counterpoise to the numerical weight of the least educated. It would be a means, he argued, of offsetting the more than equivalent evils of a completely universal suffrage.

In any system providing a widely extended suffrage it might be wise, he said, to allow all graduates of universities, all persons who have passed creditably through the higher schools, all members of the liberal professions, and perhaps some others Who registered specifically in those characters, to give their votes as such in any constituency in which they choose to register retaining in addition their votes as simple citizens in the localities in which they reside.

All these suggestions are open to discussion as to details but it is evident to me that, in this direction lies the true ideal of representative government, and that to work toward it by the best practical contrivances which can be found is the path of real political improvement.

Systems of Plural Voting in Other Countries than Belgium :

In England plural voting was formerly employed in vestry elections and in the elections of poor law guardians. Even now one may cast two votes under certain conditions. Thus one who is an occupier for business purposes of premises worth 10 a, year in a constituency other-than that in which he resides, may vote in both constituencies. Again the holder of a degree from any one of the universities may vote not only for the election of a member from the constituency in which he resides but also for the member to which his university is entitled.

For many years the complete abolition of plural voting was a part of the Liberal program and in 1906, when the Liberal party came into power, the ministry brought in a bill to establish the principle of one man one vote. It passed the House of Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords. The matter was discussed again in 1918 in connection with the Suffrage Act of that year, but the Conservative elements insisted on retaining it as a means of preventing the submergence of the more educated and wealthy part of the electorate. The Liberals finally consented to retain the principle with the restrictions and conditions mentioned above.

In some of the German states, prior to the World War, a  system of unequal suffrage existed. Thus the suffrage for the Landtag, or lower chamber of the Prussian legislature was organized on a three class basis under which the members were chosen individually by colleges of electors in each district who were themselves chosen by voters grouped into three classes according to the amount of the taxes which they paid The result was to give the wealthier classes the preponderance of representation in the legislature, as it was intended to do Judged by the standards of modern democracy, it was the most (archaic and unjust system of suffrage in the world. The Social Democratic party, although probably, in the majority numerically throughout Prussia, was rarely able to elect a single deputy to the Landtag. The Same system existed for the election of members of Prussian municipal council and for the election of the legislatures of several of the other German states,n notably Saxony until 1909, where each elector had from one to four votes according to his office, fortune, or education.

The system was defended in Germany on the theory that inequality of voting was not inconsistent with true democracy, that in the organization of the suffrage the interests of property as well as numbers ought to be taken into consideration, and that universal equal suffrage would lead to government by those who had the least interest at stake and to the exploitation by them of the wealthier classes 29 So far as the Government of cities was Concerned, it was the German theory that a municipal corporation is analogous to a private stock holding enterprise and consequently only those who are stockholders that is, those who-pay taxes-could justly claim the right to vote in the management of the affairs of the enterprise, and that the voting power of those who were entitled to vote should be measured according to the amount of their interests.

Disappearance of Plural Voting :

The German constitution of 1919 requires that the legislatures of all the states (Lander) composing the Reich shall be elected by equal suffrage. No one of the states could, therefore, if it desired, reestablish a system of weighted and unequal suffrage.

In Australia, until 1907, a complicated five-class system prevailed under Which the property-owning and tax-paying classes exercised the prepondering influence. Until 1896 only taxpayers could vote, but in that year an additional class was created based on universal suffrage, which elected about one sixth of the members of the chamber. By a constitutional amendment adopted in 1907, however, the five class system was abolished and virtual manhood suffrage was established for the election  representatives to the popular chamber.

In consequence of the important constitutional changes that have been made in Europe since the World War the system of plural or weighted voting has disappeared everywhere except in England, where, as stated above, it still survives in very limited form. In so far as it permits an individual to vote both in the district in which he is domiciled and in another district in which he owns real estate, the principle is defensible on the theory that taxation and representation are conditioned the one upon the other

Proposed Family Voting in France :

In France during the World War a considerable propaganda was carried on for the introduction of a system of family voting under which the head of the family should have, besides his personal vote, a vote for his wife and one for each of his children. The principal argument in favor of the scheme was that it would prove an efficacious means of encouraging, by the reward which it offered, larger family’s and thus promote the increase of a declining population. Moreover, it was argued that a parliament elected by such a system would represent the nation on its true basis, which it was assumed was the family rather than the individual, Bills providing for such a system were introduced at various times in the Chamber of Deputies, one of them in 1920 having been signed by 200 deputies.

In Japan :

In the debates on the Japanese electoral law of 1925 a strong plea was made in favor of confining the parliamentary suffrage to heads of families, whether males or females.