Early and Often: Voting and its Discontents

   In the Summer of 1947, John F. Kennedy, then a young Congressman, visited his sister Kathleen in England. Kathleen, who had married into the upper echelons of the peerage, was particularly keen for her favourite older brother to meet her friend Anthony Eden, the Tory M.P. who would go on to be Prime Minister. She wrote to a friend: “Anthony Eden arrives today so by the end of the week he and Jack will have fixed up the state of the world.” The remark was likely made in jest, but it reflected an attitude deeply held by members of a certain class: that politics was a decidedly de haut en bas enterprise and that the problems of the world were best solved by a small, exclusive group of people. This notion is alive and well today: not, by and large, among blood-aristocrats, as Eden and Kennedy both were, but among those who find themselves at the top of our ‘meritocratic’ totem pole. These men and women, who got the right scores on the right tests, attended the right institutions and trained at the right firms, find it simply bewildering when confronted with the fact that everyone else can’t see how so very right they always are.

It is in this spirit that, without fail, every few months someone hits upon the bright idea of narrowing the electorate to include only the ‘right sort’ of person by stripping the franchise from any number of undesirables. This is the basic idea but it comes in many different flavours. There is of course the vanilla, the garden-variety intellectual elitist who thinks that only those with the requisite knowledge (as defined by him) ought to have the vote. Then there are slightly more out-there views – the butterscotches and strawberries – such as U.S. venture capitalist Tom Perkins’ view that only taxpayers should be enfranchised. If your tastes are more retro – Cassata, perhaps – you are in luck: I have heard if suggested seriously that only property-owners should have the vote (though in a shocking concession to the 21st Century the speaker would allow women who own property to vote as well).

By far the most common view among these, however, is that we should create what the American academic Jason Brennan euphemistically calls an ‘epistocracy’. This view was given a rather soft touch in an article published recently in the pages of this magazine. According to Brennan, citizens must pass some kind of civics exam before being granted the right to be consulted about who will rule over them for the next few years. Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo puts forward similar views in her book ‘Edge of Chaos’, though she goes even further than Brennan, suggesting  for example that votes be granted in proportion to one’s score on the civics test, with additional votes on top of that for those with professional qualifications – lawyers, accountants and the like.

Moyo and Brennan’s views remind me of the Texan in Captain Yossarian’s ward who “felt, patriotically, that people of means – decent folk – should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists – indecent folk – people without means.” Well-meaning liberals and techno-utopians of all stripes may dress up the discrimination in whatever objective terms they like but it will boil down to one thing and one thing only: people with means and people without means.

Franchise restrictionists brush away the dark and sordid history of the idea and ignore the long and painful struggle for the universal adult franchise. India has already had experience with a graduated franchise system. Under the Government of India Act 1935, only about 10% of Indians,  based on property and educational qualifications, could vote in elections to provincial legislatures. This policy was consciously designed by the British to reproduce in our institutions of limited self-government the hierarchies that existed in society and so to prevent meaningful social and political reform. It was in response to this that independent India was conceived as a republic of equally enfranchised citizens, not one where the less-fortunate were wholly dependent on the benevolent enlightenment of the affluent. This was the cornerstone of what was a radical, revolutionary independence movement, one which sparked the largest democratic experiment in world history. In the United States meanwhile, hardline segregationist governments in the South of the country used often-bogus literacy tests as a way of disenfranchising black citizens and thereby perpetrating their system of apartheid, petty and grand. This continued until civil rights activists pressured the Federal authorities to intervene and put an end to it.

This ugly history cannot by ignored by saying simply “oh, but surely this time we’ll get it right.”

Even if there was some perfectly objective way of determining the ‘right sort’ of knowledge, to make the franchise conditional on it would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of democracy. Representation is the point. Citizenship is not a private members’ club for the well-heeled; it is the basic right from which all others spring. Democratic government is premised on the idea that we are equal as citizens, and citizenship is meaningless if it does not include the right to participate in the government to which one will be subject. This is not a purely theoretical matter, either, as Nancy Astor pointed out in a 1959 interview. Astor, the first woman in the British House of Commons, was asked by a BBC interviewer whether the struggle for women’s suffrage was ‘worth it.’ She replied simply with a statistic: in the twelve years before women won the right to vote, Parliament passed four Acts dealing with women’s welfare. In the twelve years after, it passed twenty-eight. Institutions respond only to those to whom they are accountable. If there is any hope, then, for a politics not confined to representing narrow and sectional interests, it cannot begin by disenfranchising vast swathes of the population.

None of this is to say that we do not need counter-majoritarian institutions which act as checks on democratic decision-making, most importantly an independent judiciary. A constitutional democracy like ours contains many inherent contradictions, not least that between constitutionalism and democracy. The conflict between the two is a feature of, not a bug in our system. It is the interplay between them that ensures the legitimacy and longevity of a constitutional republic, and the total victory of one over the other is a prelude to disaster. As F. Scott Fitzgerald requires of all intelligent people, we must be able to hold these two contradicting ideas in our minds and still retain our ability to function.

However, if we are really to enter Brennan or Moyo’s brave new world, I would like to venture some suggestions of my own: strike from the voter rolls anyone who holds his knife like a pen; use the Central Armed Police Forces to bar from the polling booth anyone overheard referring to Gurgaon as ‘G-Town’; and extend the franchise in inverse proportion to the amount of Honey Singh on the voter’s playlist. Take your pick. It will help about as much as any of those distinguished academics’ suggestions. In the meantime, while we wait for this blessed utopia, please, please vote.

Jay Vinayak Ojha read Law at Cambridge and graduated in 2018. His other areas of interest include history and international relations. He is currently based in Delhi.

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