Universal suffrage. Everyone gets a vote. Should they?
I’m a news junkie as well as getting high on politics. So I watch a lot of news, from all over the world, and I haven’t been able to escape from the fact that news media, all of them, now give untold amounts of time to vox pops. Any event, anywhere, any time, and witnesses, standers-by, passing observers, all sorts of people are asked to speak and say what they saw, and, more often than not, what they think.
And, too often, I am appalled. In recent times, with politics high in the consciousness of just about everyone (Trump, 2020, Brexit, etc.,) I see and hear “ordinary” people telling a news reporter what they think, and why. And I am so often appalled by the resulting opinions, that I find myself muttering, “This undereducated, dim-brained, inarticulate nincompoop has a vote!? In a general election?!!! What the hell?”
Then I tell myself to stop being an overeducated, elitist snob, and that if we think that democracy is still a good idea, then it currently works if everyone who is qualified to vote, can do so. Universal suffrage is here to stay, and unless countries like Britain, the USA and other western-type democracies do away with it, it is part and parcel of the democratic process. But this does not stop me thinking that the democratic process and the systems within it are now seriously broken and that recent outcomes horribly demonstrate this.
The US Electoral College made it possible for a universally deployed vote to produce a many-millions majority in one candidate’s victory in counting the total popular vote, to be overturned and to hand the election and the presidency to her opponent. It might do it again in November this year. In Britain, the “first past the post” system by which, in a multi-field, multi-constituency General Election, the candidates who receive the most votes take the whole pot. This is a deep injustice, but every attempt to introduce some form of proportional representation is either loudly shouted down or quietly killed in dark rooms. The USA Primaries system is also desperately flawed in a similar way — the winner takes all the Convention delegate votes.
So we have Trump on one side of the Atlantic and Johnson on the other. The legality of their tenure is not in question because a combination of that universal right to vote, the way the votes are counted and the results applied are right there, in the law. But the legitimacy of their tenure is seriously in question.
Is there any way to retain the right of everyone to cast a vote, while carefully restructuring what happens to the votes once they are in and counted? And making sure that everyone knows exactly how this is going to work, before the votes are cast. I believe there is, but it would take nothing short of a constitutional revolution to do it. Several convulsions, indeed, but the end result might just be the rescue of democracy. Let the people vote, but make sure that the end result is curtailed. Fairly, transparently, but curtailed, limited. For example: no bare majorities of any kind — any vote in a plebiscite or referendum must show a clear majority either for or against the proposition — by 2:1. If that is achieved, then we have the security of knowing that for every losing vote, there are two winners and vice versa. Also, for the election of representatives to any body, proportional voting only, so that there is at least the probability of almost all votes having been taken into account and counting — with compulsory voting, everywhere and always. That ought to take care, too, of the dead, strangling hand of tribal party politics. Why compulsory voting? If young people had voted in sufficient numbers in both the US and Britain, neither Trump nor Johnson would be where they are.
In the USA, you have both the advantage and the disadvantage of a written Constitution. Advantage? You can refer to one place where the basic law which governs all laws is to be found. True — it is never quite that simple, because your Supreme Court is kept very busy, quite often, deciding what that Constitution actually says. Made somewhat more complicated by the sad fact that a Trump or any president can pack that Court with those who suit his political whim. So judges do, in effect, quite frequently, but indirectly, make the law. Disadvantage? You have to jump through almost impossible hoops in order to amend that Constitution, and ironically, this is one area where bare majorities are already outlawed.
In Britain, we have no written constitution. Our laws are made in a very haphazard way, and cannot be tested against a basic law. Often, laws are made — important Acts are passed — by the barest of majorities. The only way a law can be finally tested is by recourse to our Supreme Court, which will decide matters, as often as not, on the basis of precedent. But this does mean we have the advantage of being able to do things in terms of changing the law, relatively painlessly. If we wanted to introduce proportional representation, it could be done by the British Parliament in a very short time, and by a bare majority, ironically. But there’s a twist: our vague constitution holds that a Parliament, sitting at a particular time, cannot bind its successor Parliaments. So any law, in the absence of a basic law, can be repealed virtually overnight. Which makes a powerful case, one I support, for a British Constitution, fully written, and not easily amended.
Which takes me back to that universal franchise, and to the very concept of a representative democracy on which it seems to rest. I am, almost daily, really upset to watch and listen to people who are entitled to vote, but who do not seem to have any idea what they are voting for. That democracy is reduced to who can sell the biggest lies; who has the sheer damned cheek but the terrible ability to rise above the voting masses on the strength of their perceived charisma and rabble-rousing style. Hitler, anyone? That’s why I believe that we have to live with votes-for-all, but that we have to find a way to limit the outcomes of mass voting. And who are the “we” who should do this?