The New International Encyclopædia/Electoral Reform

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Edition of 1905.  See also Electoral reform on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ELECTORAL REFORM. In general, any improvement by law or custom in the manner of conducting elections to public office. Specifically, the phrase describes the movement of the last hundred years for the purification of elections in Great Britain and the United States.

It is of the utmost importance, in a State whose government rests wholly or in great part on popular suffrage, that public elections should be free and honest. When they are of this character, public officials are true representatives of the people, and the legislation and policies which such officials adopt fairly reflect the popular will. The tendency, however, in every representative government is toward the control of nominating conventions and of elections by small bodies of men whose energies are chiefly directed to the manipulation of caucuses and party machinery. While the great mass of electors are engrossed in the conduct of their private affairs, these professional politicians, taking advantage of the popular apathy, dictate nominations to office, force party conventions to register their secret choices, and control the entire machinery of elections.

Accordingly, agitation for electoral reforms has usually been directed toward one of three ends: (1) A change in the qualifications of electors; (2) securing to electors the free and effective expression of their choice of officers; (3) the punishment of those guilty of corrupt practices in connection with elections.

(1) Qualifications of Electors. Both in Great Britain and in the United States the State has treated the elective franchise as a privilege of its citizens, and not as one of their natural rights. Hence it has bestowed that privilege from time to time upon those, and those only, who it has been considered would use it wisely and for the best interests of the State. Public opinion concerning the proper qualifications of voters has undergone many changes during the last hundred years. In the main, these have been in the direction of extending the franchise to new classes of voters, of broadening the basis of the electorate. When the United States became independent, suffrage was limited in every one of the commonwealths to property-owners. In Massachusetts it was required not only that the voter be of age, but that he be the owner of real estate worth £60 sterling, or of a freehold yielding £3 annual income. In New York it was necessary that he be seized of a freehold worth £20, or pay a rent of 40 shillings a year, and have his name on the list of taxpayers. South Carolina insisted upon the voter being a white freeman and freeholder, and believing in the existence of a God and in a future state of rewards and punishment.

During the last century, however, most of the States accepted the theory of universal manhood suffrage, and extended the elective franchise to all male citizens of twenty-one years and upward, while a few of the States have granted to women also the privilege of voting. Although the tide of electoral reform in this country has set mainly in the direction of universal suffrage, in some States its purpose has been to impose restrictions upon the elective franchise. California, for example, has enacted that no person who is unable to read the State Constitution in the English language and write his name shall ever exercise the privilege of a State elector. Connecticut and Massachusetts impose somewhat similar restrictions upon voters. Several of the Southern States have recently limited the suffrage by imposing educational qualifications upon voters, or by requiring them to pay certain taxes. This policy has for its prime object the disqualification of ignorant and indigent negroes. In Louisiana and some other States persons are permitted to vote who do not possess the prescribed qualifications, provided they were entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, or are sons or grandsons of persons thus entitled. The class thus excepted includes poor and illiterate whites.

In Great Britain the trend of electoral reform has followed the same general course as in the United Slates, although it has not yet reached the goal of universal manhood suffrage. The electorate has been extended several times, until it includes not only copyholders, leaseholders, and householders of premises of small values, but also men occupying lodgings of the yearly value of £10. Agitation is still in progress for extending the elective franchise to all men of proper age and sound mind, without regard to the ownership or occupation of property, and also for enabling women to vote. See Woman Suffrage.

(2) Protection of Voters. It is of prime importance that perfect freedom of choice should be secured to electors. Hence the secret ballot has been substituted for the viva voce vote (see Ballot), and bribery and intimidation of electors are treated as grave criminal offenses. Not only should the elector be allowed to exercise his free choice at the polls, but that freedom ought not to be rendered ineffective by the improper manipulation of caucuses or primaries, or by giving to the voters of some districts undue advantage over others. The caucus or primary is a meeting of the members of a particular political party or group for the purpose of nominating candidates for office within a prescribed district, or of electing delegates to larger conventions of the party, or of declaring party principles. These gatherings have often been controlled by unscrupulous persons, who have not hesitated to resort to fraud and violence. In order that the party caucus or primary should reflect the views of the majority of the party electors of the district, statutes have been enacted in several States surrounding these voluntary gatherings with many of the legal safeguards which protect general elections. The place and time for the caucus or primary is fixed by law; the manner of registration and voting is prescribed, and severe criminal penalties are affixed to fraudulent or violent manipulations of these meetings.

While this legal regulation of the primary has done much to mitigate its evils, it is still open to the objection that it leaves the control of the nominating system in the hands of the party managers, and practically excludes the independent voter from exercising any considerable influence in the selection of candidates for public office. The recent increase in the number of independent voters has given them new weight in politics, and they are now demanding a further reform, which has in contemplation the substitution of ‘direct’ for primary and caucus nominations. This is to be effected by permitting a specified number of registered voters to place a candidate in nomination directly, by a written declaration signed by them, and without the intervention of the machinery of caucuses and conventions new employed. All candidates for a given office being nominated in the same simple and direct way, it is assumed that they will represent the unconstrained choice of the electorate, and that all will occupy an equal footing as candidates. The method of ‘direct nominations,’ as it is called, has recently been adopted in several of the Western States, and is apparently meeting with increasing favor in other parts of the country. The experiment is too new, however, to furnish any satisfactory evidence of its real value.

A flagrant example of the control of elections by corrupt party managers was formerly afforded by the pocket and rotten boroughs of England, which were disfranchised by the Reform Bill of 1832. These were boroughs (having the right to elect members of Parliament) that were controlled by non-resident noblemen, either by reason of their landed proprietorship or of their purchase of the electors. In many of them the number of voters was very small. For example, the borough of Gatton had but seven electors, and that of Old Sarum but one — the keeper of an alehouse. When Lord Russell introduced his Reform Bill in 1831, 90 members of Parliament were returned by 40 boroughs with less than 50 votes each, and a majority of the House of Commons was elected by 15,000 out of 3,000,000 male adults. One peer controlled boroughs which sent up 11 members of his choice to the House of Commons, while some of the great manufacturing centres had no representation in Parliament. The Reform Bill disfranchised 56 of these rotten boroughs, and made a new distribution of Parliamentary representatives throughout the kingdom.

A condition of things somewhat similar to that in Britain when Lord Russell introduced his Reform Bill exists in some of our States, notably Connecticut, where the unit of legislative representation is the township. A century and a half ago such a basis of representation was a fair one. Now it is not. Many of the towns have now a smaller population than a hundred years ago, while others have increased their voters a thousandfold. As a result, a handful of electors in a rural township may have an equal voice in the State Legislature with a thousand electors in a large village or a city. Agitations for a redistribution of legislative representatives will continue undoubtedly until the present condition of things in such States is changed.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution provides that when the right to vote at any Federal or State election is denied to any of the male inhabitants of a State “being twenty-one years of age and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of representation [in Congress] therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole.”

(3) Corrupt Electoral Practices. The most heinous of these are false personation and repeating by voters, and bribery and intimidation by candidates for office or their partisans. Both in Britain and in this country repeated efforts have been made by legislators to eradicate these practices, but without entire success. Perhaps the most comprehensive and rigorous piece of legislation of this sort is the British Corrupt Practices Act of 1883, with its amendments. Its principal features are: (1) The severe penalties inflicted upon those guilty of false personation at the polls or of voting more than once at the same election, as well as upon all who indulge in the intimidation, undue influence, or bribery of voters; (2) the restriction within very narrow limits of the employment of paid agents, clerks, messengers, and others by candidates or election committees; (3) the prescribing of a fixed scale of lawful expenditures by candidates and committees; (4) requiring a full and correct account of such expenditures. Several of our States have laws of a similar character. Although none of them are as sweeping or as effective as the British act, their results have been beneficial.

A lucid account of the provisions and working of the British statute, by its draftsman, Sir Henry James, will be found in The Forum for April, 1893 (vol. xv., p. 129). The article is followed by accounts of similar statutes in several of our States. Lord Bradbourne criticises the British act in a series of very entertaining articles on “Old Elections in England” (Blackwood's Magazine, cli. 763, and id., clii. 38, 248, 688).

Some of the grosser forms of fraud at elections, such as the use of fraudulent and tissue ballots and the stuffing of ballot-boxes, have been rendered obsolete by the adoption of the Australian ballot, and the assumption by the State of the duty of furnishing an official ballot in place of the party ballot formerly provided by the several party organizations. The practice of repeating, dishonest counts, and false returns of votes have been checked by the registration of voters, the provision of an increased number of official watchers at the polls, and, in some parts of the country, by the employment of voting and counting machines. See Ballot; Corrupt Practices; Election; Voting-Machine. Consult: Bishop, Colonial Elections (New York, 1893); Dallinger, Nominations for Elective Office (New York, 1897); Stüreks, Primary Election Legislation (New York, 1898); Ward, Treatise on the Law Relating to Parliamentary and Municipal Elections (2d ed., London, 1886).