The Franchise Problem

13 December 2017


‘Chairing the Member’ from William Hogarth’s series ‘Humours of an Election.’

Is an inclusive franchise a bug or a feature of democracy?

One of the unquestioned political values (if not ideals) of our time is not only that of liberal democracy, but, even more-so, liberal democracy with the broadest possible franchise. Many today regard the expansion of the franchise as one of the most important accomplishments of contemporary civil society and civil rights. Indeed, the limited franchise of democracies prior to the twentieth century expansion of the voting franchise is today regarded as a terrible moral stain on earlier societies. But what if a limited franchise were not a bug but rather a feature of early democracies? Can democracy even function with a universal franchise? We don’t know. Political societies in their contemporary form of a nearly universal franchise are historically very young, and we cannot yet say whether or not these political experiments will be successful.

Even to suggest a restriction on the franchise after a century of expansion is political heresy in the western world, but we may be forced into accepting some limitation on voting rights in order to salvage our societies, which seem bent on self-destruction. It is likely that the most we can do at this point in the history of western civilization is to salvage what can be salvaged from the Enlightenment project; more radically, western civilization may need to sever its relationship to the Enlightenment project and adopt some other ideological formation as its central project, and this would likely be a process as fraught as the Thirty Years’ War, which was one of the causes of the formation of the Enlightenment project. I think it would be preferable to experiment with different implementations of the Enlightenment project though different franchise regimes, when seen in comparison to the chaos that would ensue from entirely dispensing with the Enlightenment project. Thus, I am well aware that the present discussion lies outside the configuration of the Overton window as it functions in contemporary western societies, but I think that this discussion can be conducted in a rational way, and that it may suggest political experiments that have never yet been tried in the history of humanity.

Even before the age of the nearly universal franchise, democracy was believed to be unworkable. Plato and Aristotle had nothing good to say about democracy — after all, it had been democratic Athens that had condemned Socrates to death. In modern times there is a well-known quote from Alexander Fraser Tytler, often mis-attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, suggesting that democracy is fatally flawed:

“A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the results that Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”

While this was written before the nearly universal franchise of contemporary democracies, it points to a structural problem in democracies that is only made worse by the expanding scope of the franchise. The practical consequence of a nearly universal franchise is that voting rights have been given to an even greater number individuals who are not stakeholders in society except in so far as their “stake” in society is the value that they extract from the others in that society that produce value. Very few individuals are productive members of society — most consume more than they contribute to the common weal. It sounds cruel to say it, but this is a case in which we must eventually be cruel to be kind. The dependent members of a society will suffer more in the long run from the collapse of that society than they would suffer from being excluded from the franchise.

A democracy with a limited franchise has as its goal a franchise that is restricted to productive stakeholders in society. Limiting the vote to property owners was one way to accomplish this, and moreover this retained a connection to the feudal past, in which the lords of feudal estates were a law unto themselves in the decentralized power structure of feudalism. Nevertheless, democracy has deep roots in western society, and many of these feudal societies had democratic aspects that we fail to recognize as democratic today because of the severely restricted franchise. For example, when the aldermen of a town gathered to make a decision, this was an essentially democratic institution. Many such institutions existed on a local level, and they reached up all the way to the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, where the franchise was limited to prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire electoral college. The Vatican retains a system like this to the present day, in which the College of Cardinals elects the Pope, not a mass ballot among Roman Catholics.

In past democratic societies, voting rights were restricted across categories of age, sex, and race, and these are precisely the categories that became the focus of identity politics in our own time. Since these past categories of franchise limitation have proved to be so divisive, the obvious political experiment is to attempt franchise limitations based on other categories (though it is easy to predict that any condition placed on voting would rapidly become stigmatized as a method employed by the powerful to shut out powerless sectors of society from ever gaining political power). Above the idea of limiting the franchise to property owners has been noted. Another idea that regularly recurs, and which is found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, is the limitation of the franchise to veterans. It would also be possible to limit the franchise to net taxpayers (those who pay more taxes to the government than the value they derive in government services, though this calculation would of course be controversial).

A thought experiment that may help us to think our way through the franchise problem is to consider the remaining restrictions on the expansion of the franchise. Most nation-states that hold elections have a minimum age limit for voting, and most restrict voting rights to citizens. What would it be like to remove these remaining restrictions on voting rights? What would a truly universal franchise be like? Suppose anyone from anywhere in the world could come to your nation-state and vote in your election, and further suppose that children of any age could vote. This would obviously run into serious problems. A toddler could not meaningfully vote, but a toddler’s parents could take a toddler into a voting booth and record the child’s vote.

The problem of children voting points to two very interesting questions:

1) If beings who cannot meaningfully vote were included in a universal franchise, why should we limit the franchise to human beings? A dog may not be able to meaningfully vote in an election (or stand for office), but a dog’s owner could register a dog’s vote, just as a parent could register a child’s vote before that child became old enough to resist having their vote taken by their parent. If this is a problem, why exactly is it a problem? Presumably it is a problem because kennel owners would breed themselves into a position of power in society, and we think this is more likely than parents producing so many children as to capture the vote in an election. However, a very rich individual could adopt a large number of children and thereby control a disproportionate voting bloc. Is this a bad thing? If there were requirements to assure the well being of the children (as there are), this could be to the benefit of orphans. However, if children were relevant to voting, there would be far fewer orphans because children would be more politically valuable than they are today.

2) If the votes of very young children would necessarily be mediated by their parents, the child’s vote could simply be legally conferred upon the parent or guardian until that child reaches a certain age. This points to possible alternatives to contemporary franchise conventions: an individual (or a couple) could have as many votes as they have dependent children, for example. This could be administered in many different ways. Each adult might have a vote, and then one parent (or both) might have an additional number of votes corresponding to their number of dependent children. In a more radically natalist regime, the only votes could be the votes that parents exercise on behalf of their dependent children, and no adult automatically has a vote simply in virtue of being an adult. Individuals would have an opportunity to vote only when they could prove themselves to be a parent presently caring for a dependent child, which would achieve the end of having the only voters being those who are stakeholders in the future of the society in question. Additionally, this would incentivize child-rearing at a time of declining fertility rates. (Full disclosure: I have no children, so I would not be eligible to vote under such a franchise regime.)

I do not think it is likely that any contemporary political regime would adopt any of the franchise experiments suggested above in regard to parents exercising a vote on behalf on their children, but it is an interesting idea, and it points to other political experiments that could be made.

A political entity might actively manage the scope of its franchise throughout its history, changing voter qualifications as conditions change, and circumstances appear to warrant a different composition of the electorate. For example, if the age distribution of a society becomes too weighted toward the elderly, as is projected to occur in most if not all industrialized nation-states in the near future, a nation-state may choose to implement not only a lower age limit to voting, but also an upper age limit for voting. An active management of the franchise might be continual changes in both lower and upper age limits to voting eligibility.

Given the generous supply of political data, it would not be difficult for data scientists to comb through well-documented elections and to determine, ex post facto, what the result of a given election would have been if the franchise regime had been altered. If general rules could be derived from this kind of research, an analysis of the contemporary political landscape would determine the ideal composition of the electorate required to obtain a certain result. However, this meta-electoral process would itself be undemocratic. Some managerial body (or some individual) would have to determine the desired result and, on the basis of the desired result, then stipulate the constitution of the electorate, and it is difficult to imagine how such a regime could come about under contemporary social conditions.

The important exception to the above observation on the difficulty of managing an electorate under contemporary conditions is the European Union, which has de facto pursued a course like this. The political elites have made a determination of the desired end, and votes are held until the desired result is achieved. While it could be argued that this procedure has produced an unprecedented unification of Europe, it has also produced a backlash, most obviously manifested by the Brexit vote for Britain to leave the EU. The political class of Britain is staunchly opposed to this, and seem to be going about Brexit negotiations in a disingenuous fashion, while the “Remainers” continue to agitate for another vote, on the hope that this will reverse the first vote, and then we would have a return to EU business as usual, when votes are simply held until the desired result is obtained. This system does not involve tailoring the electorate in order to achieve the desired result; instead, the wording of the measures to be decided (clear or confusing as necessitated by circumstance), the date selected for the vote (convenient or inconvenient), the campaign for the vote, and threats of disaster should the vote not go according to plan, have been the methods employed to shape a putatively democratic society along non-democratic lines.

The reader may interpret the above remarks as hostile to the European Union, but while I find aspects of the European Union to be problematic, I admire the Europeans for having undertaken their grand political experiment in the constitution of a European superstate at a time when few nation-states are willing to experiment politically. The Europeans are using the tools they have at their disposal in order to attempt a reform of liberal democracy. Though this experiment is imperfect, as are all political experiments, there is much that we can learn from it. It is this spirit of political experimentation that he needed to order to test alternative voting franchise regimes such as those suggested above, and to prevent a society from becoming so politically stagnant that change becomes inconceivable.

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