The Constitution of the electorate

The Constitution of the electorate. Regarding the constitution of the electorate who should enjoy the franchise and who should be denied it-both theory and practice have materially varied in different epochs and in different countries. Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon in the history of democracy in the past century has been the steady evolution of the suffrage from a narrow, frequently unequal, and indirect system to one which is now virtually universal, direct, and equal. One restriction after another, religious, economic, racial, and sexual, have disappeared before the rolling tide of democracy until today few barriers remain. In the early part of the nineteenth century important restrictions were universal even in countries like France and the United States.

Restrictions in France :

In France under the Restoration, in 1814, the payment of a tax amounting to 300 francs and the attainment of the thirtieth year of age were required as conditions to the exercise of the suffrage. The Revolution of 1830 brought about a reduction from 300 to 200 francs in the amount of the tax contribution required of electors and the lowering of the age requirement of twenty-five years for members of the lower chamber. During both the period of the Restoration and the July monarchy, the number of electors in proportion to the population was exceedingly small, and this became the cause of wide spread popular discontent.

A movement for direct universal manhood suffrage become active about 1840, and it triumphed in 1848 with the establishment of the second republic, the constitution of which declared that suffrage should be direct and universal and that all Frenchmen twenty-one years of age and in the enjoyment of their civil rights should be electors, regardless of the amount of their property. This system was continued under the second empire and under the third republic, and is still in existence.

In England and the United States :

In England, until 1832, the parliamentary franchise was limited in the counties to freeholders whose landed property was of the annual value of forty shillings and in the eighteenth century the value of forty shillings was many times what it is today. In the English colonies of America freehold qualifications for voting were common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in a number of them religious qualifications also existed.

The Massachusetts charter of 1691 for example, limited the suffrage to possessors of freeholds of the annual value of forty shillings or of other estates to the value of forty pounds. Likewise the early state constitutions generally restricted the right of voting to the property-owning classes.

In some, the New Hampshire, Delaware, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, the payment simply of a tax was required, but in others the suffrage was restricted to owners of land of an annual value ranging in amount from three pounds in Massachusetts to fifty pounds in New Jersey.

With the rapid spread of democratic idea’s after 1820, however, restrictions upon the suffrage began to disappear, and before the middle of the century practically the entire adult white male population was in the enjoyment of the franchise, though here and there a small property qualification was required. Only one or two of the older states restricted the right to vote to those who could read and write.

In Germany and Other Countries :

In Germany under the imperial constitution of 1871 What amounted to universal manhood suffrage prevailed for elections to the Reichstag, although voters were required to be 25 years of age. But as pointed out above, the suffrage for state elections in Prussia, Saxony, and other states was restricted, unequal, and indirect. In Austria until 1907 only a small fraction of the lower chamber was elected by universal suffrage. In Hungary the suffrage was constituted upon , the basis of a complicated system of property, tax-paying or, educational qualifications so adjusted as to insure the overwhelming domination of the Magyar race in parliament.

In Norway universal male suffrage was not introduced until 1898 In Belgium until 1893 there was a tax-paying qualification, the effect of which was to exclude all but about 79,000 of the men in a population of 4, 000, 000. 37 In that year the restrictions were reduced, but in consequence of the system of plural voting introduced at the same time and described above, the voting strength of the poorer classes was kept far below what it would have been under a system of equal voting.

In Italy until 1912 there was a taxpaying and an educational qualification the effect of which disfranchised all but about 3,000,000 of the men in a total population of more than 34,000,000. With the removal of these restriction in 1912 the number of voters rose to more than 8,000,000. In Japan until 1925 there was a tax-paying qualification, the effect of which was to disfranchise a large majority of the adult male Population.

Early Objections to Universal Suffrage :

The long movement which finally triumphed in the general establishment of universal manhood suffrage had many opponents who attacked it as unwise and dangerous. The historian Macaulay in 1820 argued that universal suffrage would, upon utilitarian principles, lead to one “vast spoliation” and that if it were ever put into effect in England a few half naked fishermen would divide with the owls and foxes the ruins of the greatest of European cities.

Lecky in his “Democracy and Liberty,” as pointed out in an earlier article, dwelt upon what he conceived-to be the dangers of government by the ignorant masses and pleaded for a suffrage based in part upon education and property. The legislature, he said, is essentially a machine for taxing, and it should be chosen by an electorate restricted mainly to those who contribute the taxes. One of the great questions of politics in our day, he said, is coming to be, whether at the last resort, the world should be governed by its ignorance or by its intelligence. The idea that the ultimate source of power should belong to the poorest, the most ignorant, the most incapable, who are necessarily the most numerous, is a theory which assuredly reverses all the past experiences of mankind.

The election returns, Lecky went on to say, very rarely represent real public opinion because under a system of universal suffrage there are multitudes who never contribute anything to public Opinion, but Cast their votes as directed by other individuals or organizations, or at haphazard, when they are ignorant of the candidates and issues.

One man will vote blue or yellow because his father. voted that Way, without reference to the principles involved others are governed by prejudices, and so on. A bad harvest or some other disaster over which the government can have no more influence than over the march of the planets, he observed, will produce a discontent that will often govern dubious votes and may perhaps turn the scale in a nearly balanced election.

Lecky predicted that the day would come when it will appear to be one of the strangest facts in the history of human folly that the theory that the best way to improve the world and secure national progress is by placing  the government under the control of the least enlightened, classes should have once been regarded as liberal and progressive.

In considering the attitude of the ignorant masses toward scientist progress, Sir Henry Maine, one of the most powerful critics of popular government, went to the length of asserting that universal suffrage, Which to-day excludes free, trade from the United States, would certainly have prohibited the spinning jenny and the power loom.

It would certainly have prohibited the threshing machine. It would have prevented the adaption of the Gregorian calendar, and it would have restored the Stuarts. It would have proscribed the Roman Catholics with the mob which burned Lord Mansfield’s house and library in 1780, and it would have proscribed the Dissenters with the mob which burned Dr. Priestley’s house and library in l791.

Sir James Stephen, referring to the accepted theory of government which appeared to be that everybody should have a vote, declared that he for one must object to such a theory. The theory and practice of universal suffrage, he concluded, tended to invert what I should have regarded as the true and natural relation between wisdom and folly.

The Belgian publicist Emile Laveleye, another critic universal suffrage, while admitting its advantages in dignifying the individual and affording a means for the political education of the masses, yet asserted that under a parliamentary system of government it would lead to the loss of liberty, of order, and of civilization.

The Triumph of Universal Suffrage :

But in the face of the democratic tide which as Stephen admitted was already sweeping onward with irresistible force even in England at the time he wrote (1873), these pleadings for a restricted suffrage were voices crying in the wilderness.

There is no evidence that the enfranchisement of the masses in countries like England and America is likely to produce the dire results which Lecky, Maine, and Stephen prophesied. Nevertheless, their warnings concerning the dangers of universal suffrage are not to be taken lightly. The truth of much of what they said regarding the incapacity of the ignorant masses for self-government is abundantly established by reason and the experience of the past.

If government by the whole people is to be a success, they must be fitted and made capable for self-government. To vest the power of choosing those who are to rule the state in the hands of the incapable and unworthy Classes, as Bluntschli justly remarked, would mean state suicide.

Give the Suffrage to the ignorant, said Laveleye, and they will fall into anarchy today and into despotism tomorrow. Whatever the truth in either proposition, we should do well to heed the saying of John Stuart Mill that universal teaching must precede universal enfranchisement.