Frances Cowell discusses universal suffrage and it’s place in modern society. 

In 1882, several patients of Thomas S, a GP and part-time biochemist in a medium-sized Norwegian spa town, fell ill, all with similar symptoms.

Suspecting the cause to be contamination of the local water supply, Dr S had a sample sent for testing at a university laboratory. When the results confirmed that the water was unsafe for bathing, let alone drinking, he sought to alert the community with an announcement in the local newspaper.

It came at a delicate moment, as the town had just undertaken an expensive re-modelling of its spa-baths in a bid to secure its fortune as a tourist destination. Businesses leant on the newspaper editor to suppress the report of health risks, and when Dr T fought back, whipped up the support of local unions and the powerful householders’ association with warnings of job losses, aiming to have the GP removed from his post and to force him to leave the town.

Readers may recognise the plot of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Ibsen was weighing in to the debate then raging about extending the vote beyond the landed gentry. Universal Suffrage, it was then called – a misnomer, as it was not until the early twentieth century that most countries enfranchised the remaining 51% of the population .

Dictatorship of the masses

The argument in Ibsen’s day was that most people are too easily manipulated with propaganda and fake news to use their vote wisely. A “dictatorship of the masses” would lead to misgovernment and worse. Few readers will doubt that we are again seeing something similar.

Yet even without formal voting rights, many people are happy to believe what they are told and to act en masse against their own best interests. Elections may not be necessary to hijack popular opinion, but democratic processes confer legal status and political legitimacy on the hijackers, who, once entrenched, set about neutralising the checks and balances designed to safe-guard citizens’ rights, including independent judiciaries and a free and independent press.

Populist power grabs, which have given us Stalin, Hitler, Erdogan, Bolsinaro and Trump, among others, have a habit of ending unhappily. It may therefore be tempting to argue that we should re-visit the universal suffrage question.

Formally reserving the right to vote to the landed gentry, or any such discrimination on the grounds of wealth, is both absurd and, fortunately, legally and politically impossible. (Although unofficially it happens quite frequently as, for example, when voters are turned away because they lack some arbitrary paperwork or did not respond in time to some official correspondence.)

Objective, fair and practical

The question remains whether or not some bar should be set to help filter out votes cast on misinformation or purely emotional motives. And, if some bar is found to be necessary, what criteria might be objective, fair and practical?

Bars already exist in many jurisdictions, for example minors cannot vote. Neither can people in prison, nor diagnosed with serious psychiatric disorders. Yet many sane, law-abiding adults allow their votes to be used against them . Can we protect against this manipulation without compromising democratic inclusiveness?

Two criteria that have been advanced as possible filters are education, and voters’ understanding of current issues. Both are flawed, arguably fatally.

The argument against education as a criterion is that it can discriminate against the less-well-off. In many places, access to good quality education depends on your ability to pay for it, either directly through school fees, or by living in an affluent area, where government-funded schools are of good quality. Rather than closing the gap between rich and poor, this exacerbates inequality. Education fails the test of fairness.

Making sure people understand the issues before they cast a vote is superficially an attractive alternative, but how do you decide who is competent, or even what the issues are? How do you ensure that all points of view are represented? You can see how this mechanism could be harnessed to the benefit of a powerful few. It fails the test of objectivity and of practicability.

Another suggestions is to form panels of randomly-selected citizens representing all major points of view in the voting population, who are given detailed instruction about the arguments pertinent to an issue or legislative proposal. These citizens then debate and reflect on what they have learned before “voting” on them. Think of a jury-cum-focus group. One attraction is that it would permit much more comprehensive coverage of the arguments than could reasonably be achieved for the electorate as a whole. But just as juries and focus groups are easily biased and manipulated, for example through “selection bias” (who gets to sit on a panel and how are they chosen) and what information is presented to them and how it is presented, this solution could also be manipulated with ease by a powerful few. It fails all three tests: objectivity, fairness and practicability.

With us to stay

A bad idea it might have been, but when you look at them, all the alternatives are much worse! Fortunately, universal suffrage seems with us to stay.

In time, other criteria for filtering voting rights may or may not emerge. Until then, like the town-folk in Ibsen’s play who mobilise against their own health, many people will continue to let themselves be manipulated with lies and propaganda, often at great cost to themselves and those around them.

Whatever the solution to this problem, limiting people’s democratic rights, no matter how much they insist on abusing them, is not a solution.

Universal suffrage brought us Hitler. Lack of it brought us Lenin and then Stalin.


Should we all be allowed to vote – even for self-harm?

Popular votes brought us Trump, Bolsonaro and Brexit in campaigns riddled with misinformation and appeals to emotion. Is it time to re-visit the question of universal suffrage?

The good news is that we are getting better at combatting lies with swift, forceful rebuttals using the lies’ own medium. And the old-media free press that survives is largely honest and reaches a large proportion of the population. But if we are to battle lies and emotional blackmail, we need to get much better and do much more.

In our election series we already drew attention to fact-checking services such as https://factcheckeu.info/en/. These are invaluable, as they help voters inform themselves. But they work only for people who make the effort to do so. What of everybody else?

People will give their support where they believe their interests lie. So the task is to show them where those interests actually are. The message should be that Europe may not be perfect, but it is not the problem, it is the solution.

Emotions were then, as they are now, more powerful forces than reason.
Our message needs to be condensed into short and simple messages – and appeal to emotions.

Europe that protects.

Are our elected representatives doing this? With few exceptions, no.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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    1 Comment

    1. Interesting article although not 100% convinced that the conclusion is right. The number of conspiracy minded and dysfunctional people making unfortunate political decisions seems to be going up not down. Would be interesting for some countries to do experiments with varying the franchise say educational qualification or requirement to pass a simple general knowledge test as you suggest. I suppose the main problem with this is that any government which wants to introduce a limited franchise on this basis is probably more interested in their own political fortunes and would be using this to suppress the vote of opposition parties rather than in any attempt to improve government.

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