Voting is important, but is it more important than other civil rights?

Gerald Ford didn't need any votes to become Unites States President.

Gerald Ford didn't need any votes to become Unites States President.

OPINION: The animated series Futurama once included an appearance by the (fictionalised) head of United States president Gerald Ford. During a discussion about voting, the head remarked, "frankly, I've never felt voting to be all that essential to the process". The joke, of course, is that Ford is the only president never elected to that office.

Professor Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University, does not agree. In an article looking at decreased turnout in general elections, he characterised the franchise as the "most fundamental of citizenship rights".

I'm not sure that's quite right.

Imagine that you had to choose one of the following sets of rights to be stripped away from you:

* The right to hold property secure from unjust government confiscation. 

* The right to choose your own career and to not be compelled to work against your will.

* The right to live where you want, use public spaces and travel freely along the roads.

* The right to be free from arbitrary arrest and to have the protections of proper criminal procedure.

* The right to have one 2.5-millionth of an indirect say in the selection of the prime minister once every three years.

At this point, somebody usually pipes up that they would keep the vote and use it to safeguard all the others. It's a bit like the "I wish for more wishes" loophole for genies in magic lamps. And, in theory, the right to vote could be used to secure the full smorgasbord of civil rights.

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But in practice, that's not how it works. Or (it might be better to say) that's not how we accumulated those rights in the first place.

The most important parts of our constitution do not exist by design. Instead, they are the result of a very gradual evolution. As political conflicts arose throughout history, compromises would be found and adopted as constitutional principles. In almost all cases, practical concerns, rather than abstract ideals, were the drivers of these settlements.

The Magna Carta is rightly seen as an important development for our liberal political life. And yet while it covered taxation, access to forests, the right to trial by jury and the protection of other customary liberties, there is nothing in it about electing the Government.

The same goes for the Petition of Right in 1628 and the Bill of Rights 1688. Both of these set out all kinds of rights that were considered essential liberties. Like the Magna Carta, these laws are considered so fundamental that they remain in force under New Zealand law to this day. But they don't say anything about a guaranteed franchise.

Over time, these privileges accumulated into an informal body of rights that the legal scholar William Blackstone called "the Fundamental Laws of England". In pre-independence America, they often went by the name "the Rights of Englishmen". When colonial Americans felt these rights were being infringed, they declared independence.

By this time, the idea of rule with the consent of the governed was gaining ground. But it is easy to overstate just how much the American Revolution was really about democracy. For many of the Founding Fathers, the very word was synonymous with "mob rule" – something to be feared. It is no coincidence that the US constitution, despite its elaborate checks and balances, enshrines no explicit right to vote.

When this country was founded in 1840, the inhabitants were promised all the rights of British subjects. But that promise did not extend to any guaranteed voting rights, because British subjects did not enjoy such rights. Indeed, it was not until 1853 that we had our first general election. Even then, the franchise was limited to non-imprisoned men over the age of 21  owning a certain amount of property.

And there's nothing to say that liberal-democratic norms will continue forever. If we adopt a written constitution, for instance, we could become more like a "procedural" democracy where elections continue but have less influence on political life. Or we could become more democratic and less liberal – especially if populism takes root.

We could mutate in some other, more surprising directions. Canterbury University's Nicholas Ross Smith has done interesting work advocating for the old Athenian idea of selecting office holders by lottery rather than by election.

For the time being, voting is an important part of our constitutional arrangements. As long as that is the case, human dignity requires that the franchise not be denied on the basis of race, sex or wealth. It must be available to all.

But it doesn't follow that elections are all that fundamental. Some things are even more important than the right to vote. To that extent, I am with the disembodied head of Gerald Ford.

 - Stuff


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