Legal Disfranchisement

THE necessity of removing from the ballot box all taint of corruption has long been felt, and has been well met by the adoption, on the part of several States, of the Australian ballot system. But while this secret ballot reduces to the minimum the possibilities of bribery, intimidation, and all other forms of illegal disfranchisement, there still remains the unsolved problem of legal disfranchisement: we still lack that method which will give to the people of each and every State, at all times, representation according to the votes cast.

The avowed purpose of our political system is to secure the rule of the majority ; but, though having that end in view, we have enacted laws which defeat the very object sought. Congressmen are apportioned among the States according to their respective populations; but, for the election of these representatives of the people, the States have been divided into districts corresponding to the number of men to be chosen, in each of which a plurality shall elect. The possibilities for mischief in such a method may, perhaps, be made most apparent by submitting a hypothetical case. Suppose a company of forty-nine members; of these twenty - five constitute a majority, and may direct affairs. But forty-nine being an unwieldy number, they agree to elect a managing board of seven, which will allow one representative to every seven members. Patterning from our political system, they separate themselves into seven sections, each of which shall have one representative on the board. As four members in a section are sufficient to elect, the whole board may represent but twenty-eight of them ; and as four constitute a majority of the board, its course may be determined by the representatives of only sixteen of the members, — the remaining thirty-three having voted against the four men who control the action of the board.

To make the supposition still more pertinent, let the company be given a political coloring. Suppose twenty-five of the members to be protectionists, and twenty-four of them free traders: the former, having the majority, make up the sections in such a way that one has six free traders and one protectionist, while the other six sections have each three free traders and four protectionists, which will result in the election of a board of management composed of one free trader and six protectionists. This order must remain until the free traders get a majority on the board. They may make converts among their opponents thus: The solitary protectionist may be won over, but though this action gives the free traders a majority of the members of the company, it does not alter the makeup of the board. In addition to this, the four protectionists in each of two other sections may be converted, but the others prove to be incorrigible. The free traders now have thirty-three members of the company, but they can elect only three representatives, and hence cannot control the action of the board. Of course, when they do get control, they are likely to reconstruct the sections in such a way that their opponents will be disfranchised. Thus it will be seen that, under a system fair and honest upon its face, it is possible for a faction to embrace 42.8 per cent of the members and yet have absolutely no representation; and it may grow to have 67.3 per cent of the membership without being able to get a majority of the representatives on the board.

That this hypothesis, gross and absurd as it appears, is not more extravagant than the fact may easily be demonstrated. The apportionment of 1880 gave to Kansas seven representatives, which is at the rate of one for 14.3 voters in each hundred. In 1882, the Democrats of that State polled 32.2 votes of every hundred cast for Congressmen, but failed to elect one; in 1884, they mustered 37.2 votes of every hundred cast, but it availed them nothing; in 1886, they rolled up 40.3 votes of every hundred polled without breaking the solid Republican delegation ; and in 1888, they polled 31.9 out of every hundred votes cast, with the same result. Not since Kansas was admitted to the Union have the Democrats of that State had a representative in Congress, though they have polled at the different elections from thirty to forty of every hundred votes cast. Minnesota tells the same story. There being five representatives from that State, twenty votes in each hundred should have one; but the Democrats, in 1882, cast 31.9 in every hundred, and in 1884, 40.9 in every hundred, without effect; in 1886, owing to the curious make-up of these same districts, they elected two representatives, with a vote of 38.8 in the hundred ; in 1888, a vote of 41.2 in the hundred availed them nothing.

That this result is not due to climate, altitude, or the innate depravity of the Republicans, Kentucky or any other Democratic State can testify. In 1876, the Republicans of Kentucky polled 34.9 votes of every hundred cast for Congressmen, but failed to elect one of the ten Congressmen, though ten votes in the hundred should have been sufficient to elect one. The same party, in 1878, cast 28.7 votes of every hundred, without effect. Since that time the Republican vote has ranged from thirty-two to forty in the hundred, securing them sometimes two, but more often one representative. In 1890, the Republicans of Missouri polled 39.8 per cent of the total vote, but failed to elect one of the fourteen representatives from that State: almost forty out of every hundred men voting cast their ballots for Republican candidates, and the whole was thrown away, though a trifle over seven in the hundred should have been sufficient to elect one. The Republicans of Indiana, in 1890, cast 45.8 votes in every hundred, and elected two of the thirteen Congressmen ; 45.8 per cent of the vote secured them 7.6 per cent of the representation. In 1888, the same party in Michigan, with fifty per cent of the vote, had eighty-two per cent of the Congressmen ; in 1890, it cast forty-five per cent of the votes, and got but twenty-seven per cent of the representation ; with a loss of five per cent of the vote, the party lost fifty-five per cent of the representation.

It is needless, however, to multiply examples. State after State may be found where a party polling from forty to fifty per cent of the total vote cast is wholly unrepresented in Congress. There can be no question of the fact of legal disfranchisement. It must be borne in mind that these outrageous results are not due to ballot-box stuffing, “counting out,” or intimidation; they are from the vote as cast and counted and returned without question. They come of the law, have their being in the law, and are perpetuated by the law.

The reason of this, as in the hypothetical case of the company, is to be found in the arbitrary division of the voters into districts. The remedy is to be found in abolishing the districts, and electing the representatives from the State at large by means of the quota system.

When Thomas Hare gave to the world the quota system, a method by means of which representation must always be in proportion to the votes cast, it was hailed by such publicists as John Stuart Mill as the long-dreamed-of ideal. But the ordinary mind is so limited and circumscribed that it is very slow to conceive of the perfect when the ideal appears in any form not absolutely simple, and for that reason, if for no other, Hare’s theory of proportional representation has not made the headway that Mill anticipated, and which of right it should have made. It is possible, however, by means of a slight modification of Hare’s scheme, to secure the practical results of proportional representation, and, at the same time, have a plan so simple that all men may readily understand it, and one which will serve till the growth of popular intelligence has attained a stage admitting of the ideal.

With this method, any number of parties may put tickets in the field, and each ticket may contain any number of names up to the whole number to be chosen. The voter selects his party ticket, which he votes for as a whole, but designates thereon the candidate whom he desires most to see elected. When all the ballots cast in the State for Congressmen are counted, the whole number is divided by the number of representatives to which the State is entitled, which gives the quota or number of votes necessary to elect one. Each party vote is now divided by this quota, which gives the number of representatives to which it is entitled ; the successful candidates being those who stand highest on their respective party tickets, as expressed by the voter when he cast his ballot.

The late congressional election in Missouri will serve as an illustration. The total vote for Congressmen was 463,043, which, being divided by fourteen, the number of representatives to which that State is entitled, gives a quota of 33,074. The Republicans polled 184,337, which, divided by 33,074 (the quota), gives five full quotas and a remainder of 18,967 ; the Democrats, having cast 253,736, have seven full quotas and a remainder of 22,218 votes; the United Labor party polled 23,492 votes. As there are still two representatives to be chosen, they will be taken from the parties having the largest unfilled quotas, the Democratic and United Labor parties. This gives a congressional delegation of five Republicans, eight Democrats, and one United Labor man, instead of the fourteen Democrats, as at present, thanks to the political pens into which the minority parties are put to prevent their members from helping one another.

By means of this method, the voter may not only choose his party ticket with the full assurance that his vote will not be thrown away, but he may choose among the names which his party presents without in any way affecting the strength of his vote. And should none of the tickets in the field represent his ideas, he and his fellow-spirits may present one of their own; knowing that if they poll enough votes in the whole State to fill one quota, their candidate will be elected. The charge of complexity, which was so persistently urged against the Hare scheme by superficial critics, most certainly will not hold here; while a few years’ experience with this simple and effective method will prepare the people for the more perfect scheme. Nor can the charge hold, at least in this country, in regard to Congressmen, that it sacrifices local representation. To tell the Kansas or Minnesota Republicans, or the Missouri or Texas Democrats, that, should the congressional districts be abolished, they would lose their local representation would be absurd. They might well ask what they had to do with representation of any kind. Besides that, if opportunity were given the people of the country to nominate and elect the truly representative men, as such a plan most certainly would, it would soon be found that the legitimate duties of Congressmen embraced the conservation of the people’s rights as a whole, rather than the appointment of petty politicians to local offices, and the voting of improvements for rivers which the surveyors cannot find.

There are, as in the State of Kansas, instances where the members of the minority party, though it contains a large part of the total number of voters, are distributed so evenly among the congressional districts as to be rendered absolutely helpless. They have no more hope of being represented in the Congress at Washington than if they had no vote at all; they have but the shadow of political liberty, — the substance being denied them as much as it is the Russian peasant or the Indian ryot. The evil results of such a political system extend in two directions. In most of the congressional districts, one party or the other has such a clear majority that the minority parties have absolutely no hope of defeating it, and their members take little interest in elections. Conscious of the fact that the election was decided when the district was laid out, the legally disfranchised voters are soon thrown into that state of mind which bodes no good to the permanency of our political institutions, — the conviction that might makes right. The certainty of success, when long continued, no less than foregone defeat, is a cause of apathy; and the carelessness of election day soon extends to the primaries, where the real elections are now decided. Having crushed the spirit of political activity by certain defeat on the one hand, and lulled it to sleep by assured success on the other, the present system offers golden opportunities for the professional politicians, of which they are not slow to avail themselves. Not only may these delectable public servants so construct congressional districts that the minority party of the time shall be disfranchised, but they may make them up in such a way that the two principal parties shall be evenly divided, and thus the balance of power be thrown into the hands of a small number of voters, bound together, it may be, by fanaticism or a mutual desire for plunder. In such a case, the tyranny of the majority makes way for that of a small minority.

Legal disfranchisement is equally bad in its effects upon the representatives. They are seldom men who appeal to the better judgment of the public for approval, but rather such as can manipulate the majority party in any given district. Public apathy leaving, as it does, the nominations of candidates in the control of the “rings” and " machines,” these conscienceless mechanical contrivances naturally name such as will best serve their interests. Moral and intellectual worth are useless as political factors, unless coupled with the power to crush the “machine ” or the willingness to bow to its dictation. A premium is put upon mediocrity ; a reward is offered for dishonesty.

Suppose now the introduction of the system of proportional representation, as suggested. To begin with, the districts are abolished, leaving the voter in any part of the State free to combine with his fellows in all other parts of the State. Every man votes for Congressmen, and every vote counts; there are no permanently disfranchised voters ; there are none even temporarily disfranchised. Every citizen is conscious of the fact that the last representative on the list may be chosen by a single vote, and will make it a point to see that all his friends vote. There will be no despair from foreordained defeat; there will be no overconfidence from the certainty of victory. The state delegations will represent the parties and the people in the exact proportion of the votes cast. As the voter is freed from the necessity of voting for a certain man and party, or “ throwing away ” his vote, and may pick and choose in the political field, better men will be named as candidates for his approval. If one party does not present men of character, another may; if none of the old parties do, an independent one will. We shall not then witness the spectacle of a body of men deeply imbued with principle leading the forlorn hope, and voting year after year without avail, simply because their numbers are scattered about the State in a dozen or twenty congressional districts. They will have representation as soon as they have votes enough to fill one quota. The very fact that an independent ticket can so easily be put in the field, and with such hopes of success, will have a tendency to purify the dominant parties, and render such action largely unnecessary.

Upon Independence Day, and upon all national fête days, the air is laden with appeals for purer patriotism, for greater public spirit. But of what avail are such words when addressed to the permanently and legally disfranchised voters of whom Garfield spoke, and who are to be found in hundreds of districts throughout the country ? What does it matter to the Democrats of Minnesota or the Republicans of Texas how patriotic and public-spirited they may be ? They have absolutely no means of giving expression to their ideas of national polity; as for having any part in the choice of members of Congress, they might as well be in equatorial Africa. Few men have the moral stamina to maintain a protracted fight for principle ; practical results must be forthcoming, or they will turn their attention in other directions. When the voter has been supplied with the best possible tools, and fails to use them well, he may be censured ; but so long as he must use tools which, from their very nature, render it utterly impossible for him to perform his work, no matter what his will and intelligence may be, he is not responsible for the failure. In 1888, the Democrats polled in the thirteen States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska forty-one per cent of the vote, but secured only 13.8 per cent of the representatives : they got but thirteen Congressmen when their vote entitled them to forty-one. In 1890, the Republicans of the thirteen States of New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin polled forty-one per cent of the vote, and got ten per cent of the representatives: they got twelve Congressmen when their vote entitled them to forty-eight. In 1888, the Democrats of the seven States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska polled 38.5 per cent of the total vote for Congressmen without electing one: they got no representatives at all, though their vote entitled them to ten.

This is not representation; it is the grossest misrepresentation. It is a flat denial of the very rights guaranteed us in the Constitution; it is an outrage upon simple justice and common sense ; and to permit its continuance, when so complete and perfect a remedy as proportional representation is at hand, is nothing less than a crime.