Recently while rereading John Stuart Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government, a tract published in 1861 by a self-described political “Radical,” an early feminist, and an advocate of “economic democracy,” it dawned on me that Mill’s defense of a “universal franchise” in the context of representative democracy would be condemned today as pure fascism. Although Mill thought that the franchise should be extended to include both sexes and should function without a property requirement, he insisted that representative government could only work if sensible restrictions were maintained. First of all, “the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise.” Further, “it is important that the assembly which votes their taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something toward the taxes imposed.” This did not mean, Mill qualifies, that the inadvertent payment of an excise tax should permit someone to vote. Rather Mill called for a capitation tax that should fall on every elector. He thought it was entirely proper that an elector “might feel that the money which he assisted in voting was partly his own and that he was interested in keeping down the amount.” Although Mill favored something like a modern welfare state, he believed that by limiting the vote to those who paid direct taxes of a certain amount, one could keep the “gross expenditure” of one’s city or country from getting out of hand.
Equally important from Mill’s perspective was to restrict the vote to those who could read and write and demonstrate proficiency in these skills: “No one but those in whom an a priori theory has silenced common sense will maintain that power over others, over the whole community, should be imparted to people who have not acquired the commonest requisites for taking care of themselves — for pursuing intelligently their own interests.” The operative term here is “intelligently. “ Mill thought that those who couldn’t read as well as those who had no financial investment in what government did were unfit for the vote. He would also have limited the voting requirements to those who had mastered among other things “the elements of general history and of the history and institutions of their own country.” These too seemed “indispensable to an intelligent use of the suffrage” but Mill didn’t believe it advisable in 1861 to add to his minimal list of voting requirements.
I won’t hide my own belief that there is a growing incompatibility between an increasingly expanding suffrage and the preservation of an established (in the traditional nineteenth-century sense) liberal constitutional order. A point has now been reached in which the government exists less and less to protect property, religious liberty, and an independent civil society. The state operates more and more to satisfy the appetites and internecine grievances of a mass electorate. Moreover, it is impossible to withdraw the suffrage once it has been given to any group (perhaps felons and illegal immigrants will soon be authorized to vote in order to express their newly invented “human right.”)
The suffrage continues to expand in the name of democratic equality. What would have seemed perfectly reasonable preconditions for voting in the past, like residence requirements, poll taxes, and literacy tests can no longer be legally applied. If some such tests were applied at one time in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, then surely it would have been possible to make them work in a less invidious way, without sacrificing the principle. But reasonable restrictions on the vote have become impossible, and “voting fraud,” which Mill feared would occur with an indiscriminately granted suffrage, is still very much a reality. It has now become proof positive of discrimination to require nonregistered voters to provide identification showing that they’re eligible to vote — or that they truly are who they say they are. Large voter turnout by minority groups whose grievances are especially compelling to the media and (let’s not be coy) the Democratic National Committee have come to be seen as essential for holding “democratic” or nondiscriminatory elections. And even when the announced number of votes in urban precincts with large minority populations look suspiciously inflated, one can only challenge the results at one’s peril. (After all, not even I would welcome being in the crosshairs of our PC media.)