Ciboski: Universal Franchise

Jul 11, 2018

The primary election season to select this year’s candidates for office is near. We should remember that the road to democracy has been long, and ideas for and against a universal and equal franchise have been expressed in history.

In the 19th century some intellectuals argued against a universal franchise and the idea of one person, one vote. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill provided a sustained critique of democracy in his “On Liberty” publication of 1859. In his “Thoughts on Parliament,” he argued against a universal and equal franchise. He stated that the assembly that votes on taxes should be elected by those who pay a share of the taxes. No taxation without representation was the cry of both the English and American revolutions.

Mill liked the idea of a direct tax as a way to remind citizens to be more alert and vigilant about how their government was spending their money. Mill took issue with the question of one person, one vote in a way that is not acceptable today when he says that some people should have different numbers of votes based on their educational background.

Another argument against opening up the franchise is that a democracy depends on competing elites. The Italian thinker, Gaetano Mosca, stated that the kind of regime—monarchy, aristocracy, democracy—makes little difference because each is  controlled by elites. This means that our democracy depends on competing elites.

Political scientists argue that most voters do not have the time, energy, or expertise to study complex public policy issues. 

The result is that well-financed and well-organized interest groups often prevail on public policy issues.

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