Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blackstone debunked in California

One doesn't need to look very hard into the history of Anglo-American voting to know that the policy of letting pretty much everybody vote if they're eighteen is a modern concept. Many are familiar with the systematic efforts here in the South to deny African Americans the franchise less than half a century ago, but what I'm addressing here is something that goes back beyond living memory. Namely, the idea that only people--well, men anyway--who had some cash saved or a piece of property to their name should be allowed to cast ballots.

The classic defense of this rather elitist position comes from William Blackstone's eighteenth century Commentaries on the Laws of England. In Book 1, p. 165, Blackstone opines:

"The true reason of requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other. This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty. If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote in electing those delegates, to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty, and his life. But, since that can hardly be expected in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications ; whereby some, who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting, in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other. "

Blackstone's work was enormously influential in the American colonies and familiar to the statesmen of our country in its early years. (Daniel Boorstin's The Mysterious Science of the Law is essential reading if you have any interest in this.) Not surprisingly, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, several delegates expressed Blackstonian views on who should be allowed to vote. This exchange occurred on May 31:

"Mr. [Roger] Sherman opposed the election [of the House of Representatives] by the people, insisting that it ought to be by the State Legislatures. The people he said, immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.

"Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry. The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute."

Other delegates, including James Madison, spoke in favor of popular election of the House, and of course Sherman and Gerry were ultimately outvoted. Still, it's instructive to see that in 1787 respectable men on this side of the Atlantic thought Blackstone was onto something. You have a broad electorate at your peril; let folks with not much property and a lot of bills to pay vote and they will, Blackstone warned, cast their ballot "under some undue influence or other."

Now if you've never once in your life thrown your arms up in the air at election results and said "I can't believe we let stupid people vote!" you're a better person than I am. I'll never forget after Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, reading this or that analysis of his unexpected victory. Basically, went a popular conclusion, Ventura won because of the support of men 18 to about 25 who normally wouldn't have voted at all but came out in that election because they just thought it would be kind of cool to have a pro wrestler in the governor's mansion. Dammit, we say to ourselves at times like that--or at least I do--maybe Blackstone was right. Who wants a bunch of 22 year old beer guzzling, apartment renting punks, who won't go to a movie unless it has lots of explosions, and whose only tangible asset is an overdrawn checking account, deciding how the government should be run?

And that's why I'm happy when we have election results that serve as a reminder that Blackstone wasn't correct--at least not always. Where his philosophy of enfranchisement is concerned, Blackstone got his butt kicked yesterday in California. How's this for "undue influence":

"[Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger helped behind the scenes to garner big contributions for the measure's proponents, who raised about $30 million and outspent foes by nearly 10 to 1. Among the big contributors were businesses hoping to avoid tax increases if state finances slumped further: oil companies, tobacco and alcoholic beverage firms, sports teams and Hollywood studios."

And what were the results of outspending the opposition ten to one? Of having big, powerful California companies tell people to vote for the propositions? Of state politicians predicting financial Armageddon if the ballot measure didn't pass?

The voters in California told them all to get lost:

"California voters have officially voted no on five of the six propositions in Tuesday's special elections, according to the results provided by California's Secretary of State's official website. Proposition 1A through 1E were critical in seeking to change the state's budget system, but the five propositions received over 60 percent of voters saying no...

"The only proposition voters approved of was Prop 1F, with about 75.5 percent of voters saying yes. Prop 1F prohibits government officials to receive a pay raise during a deficit."

I love that last bit; don't you?

I'm not going to jump deeply into California's budget issues; not living in that state I haven't thought much about it. I will admit I don't really understand why people live in Los Angeles; I figure if you don't mind smog, congested highways, crime, and lots of gay people, why wouldn't you just move here to Atlanta where you get the same experience with a lower cost of living.

But as a lover of republican principles of government, I certainly feel some pride when in our twenty-first century America, where everybody who takes the time to fill out a form can vote, that the people show an independent spirit and prove Blackstone wrong. Nearly universal suffrage coupled with that ten to one outspending by ballot proponents should have, by Blackstone's logic, given "great, artful, and wealthy men, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty."

That it didn't happen suggests we working class folks are a bit more clever than Blackstone gave us credit for.

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