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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Universal White Male Suffrage


CLIFFORD F. THIES


From the days of Aristotle, serious students of public choice have considered the probable outcomes of various voting rules. Aristotle argued against (pure) democracy because he said the masses of people were neither sufficiently well educated to make a good decisions, nor able to balance conflicting concerns as in the case of creditors and debtors, landlords and tenants, and employees and employers. Aristotle argued instead for a mixed form of government, involving elements of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy.

Move the clock forward a few centuries, and we have Montesquieu and others grappling with the proper design of democratic government at a time when monarchies and feudalism ruled much of Europe, well before the French Revolution and its subsequent excesses. At the time, most proponents of democracy were not even aware that there was a distinction between democracy and liberty. But, where the reasoning of Montesquieu proved insufficient, the realities of the Reign of Terror proved persuasive. Pure democracy was not an improvement over traditional monarchy and is something to be feared.

Among those who were impressed by the experience of France was our own Thomas Jefferson. At first, Jefferson was sympathetic with the Revolution. But, then, apprehensive. Instead of advocating "one man, one vote," he advocated a property qualification. "Jeffersonian Freeholders" would be "full" or "complete" citizens, serving on jurors and as witnesses in court, owning and managing property, paying taxes, members of the militia, as well as electors. In most states, owning 100 acres of rural land or an improved town lot was necessary to vote, and freemen of color and, in New Jersey, emancipated women could and did vote if they were property owners.

But, this changed with the rise of racism in this country. Race solidarity replaced property ownership in voting. Any man could vote no matter how ignorant, lazy or shiftless, as long as he was white. And, no matter that a freeman of color might own property, pay taxes, be a veteran, and be able to prove he could read, that person was disqualified from voting by reason of the color of his skin.

Thus, the original basis of universal suffrage, as in universal white male suffrage, lay in racism, and is a contradiction of some of the most profound insights of public choice in the liberty tradition.

Proponents of things such as (1) instant registration, (2) no photo i.d., (3) Democratic Party activists "helping" immigrants unable to read English to vote, and helping those institutionalized in Medicaid nursing homes to vote, (4) felons voting without evidence of becoming self-responsible and taxpaying members of society, and (5) making it difficult for overseas military to vote, either are naive as to the implications, or else they actually do know the implications and are willing to sell out the country for short-term political advantage.

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Why, for example, did Democrats make campaign contributions to the L.P. candidate for U.S. Senator from Montana? Is it because they believe in "one man, one vote?" Or, is it because Montana doesn't have instant run-off, and Democrats are serious about winning elections by whatever means are available?

Why, for example, do Democrats say their candidates for the U.S. Congress received more votes, nationwide, than the Republicans, which they did, 49 to 48 percent, when the L.P. candidates received 1 percent, and various tiny parties of the left and of the right each totaled 1 percent? In the absence of instant run-off, what is the will of the people when no party receives a majority?

Or what about the nationwide popular vote? What does it mean when Democrats, who tend to have fewer children than Republicans, outvote Republicans by a tiny sliver, but Republicans receive the votes of adults responsible for households totaling more persons? Or, when one state has a liberal, anything goes approach to voting, when another state requires photo i.d.? Or, when Democratic precincts that kick out Republican poll watchers vote 100 percent Democrat, and other Democratic precincts report vote totals exceeding voter registration and even census estimates of the adult population?

We know that the U.S. system of voting, called "first past the gate," is subject to many flaws. It may have made sense at the time of the Founding. But, it should be considered obsolete today.  A sufficient fix would be "instant run-off." Proportional representation voting has its advantages, but has some practical problems. In the real world, pure proportional representation voting doesn't work very well. Thus, many countries that employ proportional representation do so in the context of "mixed member proportional representation." This is especially important for federal governments, where each of the states or their equivalent actually administer the election.


From the Founding of the country through to the election of 1828, states varied in their selection of presidential electors. Originally, about a third of the states had their electors chosen by their state legislature; about another third used the district method, and about a third used the slate method. But, by the election of 1832, almost all the states shifted to the slate method in order to maximize their influence on the outcome. The actual effect was almost the opposite. Most states were recognized to be non-competitive and were ignored. The South, for example, voted as a bloc for the Democrats, but the election was determined in the battleground states that were in the north and the west. An exception, briefly, was Michigan, where the Democrats briefly came to rule, and shifted to the District Method for the election of 1892 to get a few electoral votes from a state that was at the time reliably Republican.

And, what about the election of 1968? In that election, the Republican, Richard Nixon, won by edging the Democrat in many of the northern and western states, in the process of which he piled up a huge majority in the Electoral College. Did the Democrats say, hey, that's o.k., you win some and you lose some? No, they made a serious effort to pass a Constitutional Amendment to enact a run-off system in the event the person who would otherwise be the winner received less than 40 percent of the nationwide popular vote. Same thing following the election of 2000. The Democrats didn't just say, you know, it was close, and what does it really mean which candidate wins when the vote is close? No, they started an effort, at the state level, for the winner of the nationwide popular vote to be elected (without regard to whether that is a majority).

So, the idea that changing the rules is bad when the Republicans do it, just like gerrymandering is bad when the Republicans do it, but these things are o.k. when they Democrats do it, or try to, is just partisanship.

We should go ahead right now and shift the purple states that we control to the Maine-Nebraska Method, and, if the Democrats say, that's not fair unless all the states shift to the Maine-Nebraska Method, then we can join them in drafting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to do just that. Only, I would like to see instant run-off included so as to really improve our "first past the gate" system of voting.

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