Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Personal Suffrage. A Rational System of
Representation and Election. (S632: 1907)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed in the Fortnightly Review of January 1907. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 3]] My earliest memories of any political event are those connected with the first Reform Bill of 1832. I recollect my father--a genuine Tory--shaking his head over it as a sad giving-way to the ignorant clamour of the mob, and as being likely to result in some vague but terrible disaster. Then followed the public rejoicings when the Bill was passed, which in our town of Hertford, as I suppose in many others, took the form of a public, open-air free dinner, the broad Fore Street being filled with rows of tables at which the whole of the workers and their families who chose to come feasted to their hearts' content.

    But this was a mere first instalment of reform and did little towards effecting a real representation of the people. It disfranchised a number of rotten boroughs, like Old Sarum and Corfe Castle, and gave votes to some of the better classes of workmen in the towns, as being ten-pound householders; but the counties still retained their freeholder qualification, and continued to be the stronghold of Toryism and reaction.

    From that time till to-day, a period of three-quarters of a century, successive extensions of the suffrage have been made, but it may be doubted whether they have resulted in a much better or a more accurate representation of the whole nation. It is certain that the complexity, the uncertainty, and the absurdity of the whole system have never been greater, while the cost in time and money involved in the processes of registration and election have been largely increased. We have recently passed through one of the annual revisions of the lists of voters which has brought out the uncertainties of the law to an extent which could hardly be credited. Votes have been held to depend upon the possession of a latch-key, on the right to keep a dog or a parrot, or to play the piano; and while in some districts thousands of claimants have been disfranchised on account of technical points of the nature above referred to, in other districts large numbers, with exactly similar qualifications, have been accorded the vote.

    People are now becoming disgusted with all this totally unnecessary waste of time and money, and with the endless squabbles of opposing parties in the registration courts. They want no more tinkering with the qualification of voters, and will be satisfied with nothing less than one simple and uniform qualification, which, once obtained, shall require no revision, but shall automatically continue during the life of the voter. In like manner they require [[p. 4]] that the mode of election shall be thoroughly reorganised and simplified, as can easily be done; while everything in the nature of canvassing, whether personally, by agents, or by letter or circular, shall be made a criminal offence with the penalty of imprisonment. This alone will give security to the dependent voter. It is for the purpose of explaining and advocating an electoral qualification and a mode of election which shall fulfil these requirements that I now ask the attention of my readers.

The New Suffrage.

    Under the terms universal suffrage or manhood suffrage reformers have long claimed that every adult male citizen shall have a vote, while for some time past the same claim has been made irrespective of sex. In most of our self-governing colonies manhood suffrage has been granted, and the same franchise exists in the United States and in most of the constitutionally governed European countries, at least for the election of the Lower House. In New Zealand the suffrage has for some years been extended to women with excellent results. There can therefore be little doubt that the next great Reform Bill will put men and women on an equality in this respect.

    But although public opinion, as well as reason and justice, is opposed to any disqualification founded upon sex, station, property, or even on education, there remains one disqualification which is universally admitted and acted upon, not only among civilised people, but throughout the whole human race--that of age. This is a point that has generally been taken as self-evident--that a child must not vote, and as in all civilised countries persons are classed by the law as "infants," "minors," or "under age" till they are twenty-one, that age has acquired a mysterious glamour, so that though the youth of twenty is limited in various ways, such as incurring debts, entering into contracts, or performing public duties, presumably because his intellect is not sufficiently developed or his experience of life sufficiently extended to enable him to act rationally in such matters, yet the moment he crosses the magic line of his twenty-first birthday all these disabilities drop from him, and he is held to be at once capable of protecting his own property and of performing all the usual duties of manhood.

    It seems, however, to be a very irrational conclusion that because a person is legally responsible for his actions at this age he is also capable of forming a sound judgment on a matter of such importance and difficulty as choosing the individuals best fitted to form the legislature of a powerful and highly [[p. 5]] civilised nation. To perform such a duty the voter should, in the absence of all real knowledge of the actual laws and constitution of his country, at least have acquired some general acquaintance with men and things, and some experience of life in its social, municipal, and national aspects. But with most men and women of this age, and usually between the ages of twenty and thirty, such knowledge or experience has not been acquired. The great majority have barely completed their intellectual or technical education, or that manual training which gives them the power of earning the full wage in their respective callings. Many are wholly occupied in maintaining the struggle for life; others devote their leisure to various forms of sport; while even those who are of a more reflective nature, and take every opportunity afforded them for reading or for the pursuit of some branch of science, are not thereby fitted to form an independent judgment on the various difficult and controversial questions which divide political parties. Nothing can give this but experience, slowly and painfully gained through observation of, and contact with, his fellow-men in the varied relations of life--in the capacity of buyer and seller, of wage-earner or wage-payer, as juryman or witness, parish-councillor, guardian, or any other capacity that brings him into active relations with his fellows and enables him to form an opinion as to their intellectual capacity or moral character. It may be safely stated that every five years of added experience of this kind renders a man better fitted than before to have a voice in choosing the legislative body, into whose hands are committed the great issues of war or peace, of misery or well-being, of oppression or of justice, for the whole nation. It therefore seems to me to be one of the greatest of political errors to entrust this important duty to the crude intelligence, the scanty experience, and the usually prejudiced judgment of that portion of the citizens who have only just emerged from a state of legal disability and educational pupilage. The various considerations here set forth lead me to the conclusion that in order to obtain the best judgment of the nation in the choice of representatives, those only should vote who have attained the age of forty years. This, of course, is so great a departure from what has hitherto been the rule that it is not at all likely to be adopted, but it seems to me that it expresses something like the ideal to be aimed at.

    It is somewhat curious that where the importance of age in giving more extended experience and more mature judgment has been given some effect in practice, it has been applied to the chosen rather than to the choosers. I believe there are [[p. 6]] only three countries where voters must be over twenty-five years old--the Netherlands, Norway, and Japan; while there are many which have an age-limit for members of the legislature. In France, Mexico, and Sweden they must be over twenty-five years of age; in Bavaria, Canada, Japan, and Servia they must have passed their thirtieth year; while in Italy and Portugal the members of the Upper House must be over forty.

    But although at first sight it appears reasonable to apply the age-qualification to legislators rather than to voters, a little consideration will convince us that it is really much more important in the case of the latter. The two cases are entirely different. The voters are not a selected body chosen for their special abilities or superior education, but comprise the whole population above a certain age. Without going so far as to say with Carlyle that they are "mostly fools," there can be no doubt that the great majority of them cannot be termed intellectual or well educated. It is therefore highly important to secure, by means of the age-test, the best material available without any class bias or property qualification. Even the educational test is of little value, since it is not the least educated that are the most deficient in judgment or in common sense. The representatives, on the other hand, are necessarily a selected body, and in Britain at all events they are steadily becoming more carefully selected. We have only to educate the voters more thoroughly to make them both able and willing to choose men of considerable eminence in various ways. But ability, judgment, and moral character have no age-limit. They are often manifested in a high degree in very young men, as shown in such cases as Pitt and Fox, in Gladstone, and in several members of the present Parliament. The sooner such men enter Parliament the better for the nation, as nowhere else can they so rapidly acquire the special kind of knowledge that will enable them to exercise their powers to the utmost for the good of the community. Although there is no objection to a moderate age-qualification such as has been adopted by a considerable number of Parliaments, yet it cannot be considered to be of such vital importance as when applied to voters, in whose case no other useful form of selection is either practicable or advisable.

Practical Advantages of a High Age-Qualification.

    Under any form of adult suffrage including men and women on equal terms, the numbers to be registered and identified would be very great, and the trouble and cost of an election, if carried out in the usual way, would be enormous. The [[p. 7]] difficulties would chiefly arise from the fact that the population for the first ten years of manhood consists largely of unmarried men and women, a considerable proportion of whom live in lodgings, while their places of employment and of residence are frequently changed. The census reports show us that the number of persons at and above thirty-eight years of age is only half of that at and above twenty-one. If we take thirty-one years instead of thirty-eight, the proportion is two-thirds that at twenty-one. I should myself consider thirty-eight as the better voting age if we wish to get the best results--that is, the nearest approach to the matured opinion and judgment of the nation. But as such a proposal would be too great a step in advance of immemorial custom, I suggest thirty-one as the lowest age for voters at Parliamentary elections.

    Before proceeding to a consideration of the best and simplest mode of registration and election, I would strongly urge that this age-qualification should be the one and only test of the right to vote. We have surely had enough of fancy franchises dependent on property and terms of residence and latch-key qualifications, and we now demand simplicity and continuity. A man or woman once on the register should be there for life. The receipt of parish or Poor Law relief, for example, should be no disqualification, whether the "pauper" lives in or out of the house. Pauperism is largely--I believe wholly--due to our bad social system, and our duty is to abolish it as soon as possible. The fact that a man is obliged to be wholly or partially supported on public or private charity has nothing whatever to do with the right or the capacity to vote for those who make the laws which are partly responsible for his condition. A Civil List or other pensioner of hundreds or thousands a year is really just as much a pauper as the man or woman who receives seven shillings a week without working for it. Neither should the fact of having been convicted and imprisoned be a disqualification. Many such are innocent, as has been lately demonstrated in several cases and suspected in many more; but apart from this every one knows that for each man in prison there are probably many out of it who are morally and intellectually no better than he is. Crime is largely a matter of vile conditions of life from infancy upwards. It is for us to improve those conditions, and thus to diminish and ultimately to abolish deliberate crime. The only disability to vote among persons of the full age would be insanity and perhaps actual penal confinement at the time of the election.

[[p. 8]] Registration and Mode of Election.

    With such a simple qualification as here suggested, our whole machinery of registration, with its revising barristers, its courts, and its battles of opposing parties each striving to disfranchise its rivals, would be abolished, and a simple and almost automatic system could be introduced. This would work somewhat as follows. In every parish the Rate-collector or Clerk to the Parish Council would prepare a register of every inhabitant above the prescribed limit of age. In the majority of cases there would be no doubt as to whether a person was above or below the limit; only when the individual claiming the right to vote was apparently under age would some proof be required. In these cases a form of certificate would be produced by the registrar to be signed by a parent or any near relative who had known the claimant from childhood and could certify that he was of the full age required. Where no such evidence was available, a certificate of birth would have to be obtained. When a person was once registered, he would have the right to vote for life, and if he continued to live in the same parish or borough he would have no further trouble. But if he changed his residence, removing to some other district, the registrar would, on application, give him a certified copy of the entry in his book, stating that the name had been struck out of the register on account of removal, and only on the presentation of such a certificate would the applicant's name be entered in the register of his new place of residence. By this simple arrangement no one could remain on two registers and be able to give two votes, nor could any name be left on a register after a person had removed and died elsewhere, so that he might be personated and his vote be illegally given. These registers would be kept up year by year by the addition of the names of new applicants as they attained the prescribed age, and the erasure of those that died, or had left the place for a year without application for a certificate of removal.

    With a qualification so simple as that here proposed and with so large a body of voters, comprising the whole population above the age-limit, the present costly and inconvenient system of carrying out an election might be abolished. We should need no more polling places and polling clerks, no crowds of vehicles to bring distant voters to the poll, and should thus avoid the unseemly and demoralising excitement that still accompanies our Parliamentary elections. In place of this the whole business might be quietly and effectively performed by the returning officer for each electoral district with the help of a few clerks. [[p. 9]] Some time before the election all the local registry books would be sent him, and from them he would ascertain the exact number of voters. From a central Government office he would receive this number of voting papers with the requisite number of envelopes, the papers being numbered consecutively, with a letter or combination of letters indicating the district. These voting papers would have the name and address of the returning officer printed or stamped on the back, and would be so folded and gummed as to be suitable for postage. On receipt of these the clerks would direct the envelopes to each voter, while others would stamp each voting paper with the name of the parish, borough, &c., in which each voter resided, together with his number in the local register. This would enable every voting paper to be identified in case of error or dispute of any kind. The voter would then only have to fill up his voting paper in the prescribed manner, close it up, and drop it in the nearest post-office. The returning officer would count them and declare the result in the usual way.

    Of course there are other reforms of our representative system which are ripe for legislative action, the most important being, undoubtedly, the representation of minorities. This, however, has been already the subject of much discussion, and will no doubt receive great attention in the present Parliament. But whether the system of proportional representation or that of a second ballot be adopted, the method of registration and voting here advocated will enable them to be carried out with a minimum of trouble and expense to all concerned.

    My claim is that the reform here proposed is a fundamental one. It is absolutely fair to every party and class and to both sexes. It improves the quality of the voting body by simple age-selection. And, lastly, it abolishes all the excitement, drunkenness, and rowdyism of elections as now carried on, and thus obviates one of the chief objections to shorter Parliaments and to second ballots. I therefore venture to think that it is well worthy the attention of all who are really desirous of reforming our existing system of Parliamentary elections in a manner worthy of a civilised community.

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