DEFENCE OF THE PLAN OF VOTING BY BALLOT
By the lateMr. Ricardo
Sir—The general question of a reform in the representation of this House, has been so fully discussed, and so ably supported by many honourable gentlemen that have preceded me in the debate, that I shall not detain the House by offering any observations on it, but shall confine myself to the consideration of that part of the subject, which has been little noticed, but which, in my opinion, is of so much importance, that, without it, no substantial reform can be obtained:— I mean, Sir, the changing the present mode of open election for members of Parliament, and substituting in its room the secret mode, or ballot.
In order to appreciate the advantages which will result from the proposed change, it may not be improper to state, as briefly as possible, to the House, the inconveniences attending the present mode of election; that, having the nature of the evil before them, they may be the better able to judge of the efficacy of the proposed remedy. By some, indeed, it may be thought a vain and useless occupation of the time of the House to recapitulate the evils of our present system, for it may with justice be asked, who amongst us is not acquainted with the bribery, the riots, the intoxication, and the immoralities of every description, which take place on the occasion of every general election? These disgusting facts are unfortunately too notorious, yet it may not be unuseful to submit them to the attention of the House.
The scenes which occur at such times, would disgrace a barbarous people. The reign of the law appears to cease, and impunity to be proclaimed for every species of violence. A rude and brutal populace, the offscourings of our population, surround the hustings, and heap every sort of insult and indignity on the candidate who happens not to enjoy their favour. Dirt, filth, and often stones, are thrown at him—the most unmanly attacks are made upon his person, and it is frequently a task of difficulty to his friends to protect him from the effects of their savage and brutal animosity.
Nor is it the candidate only that is thus exposed to their rage, but every elector is applauded, or hissed, caressed, or furiously attacked, as he may favour or oppose by his vote, the favourite of the mob. Idleness and the neglect of work always follow in the train of an election—they are succeeded by debauchery and intoxication, and for a period the country suffers under all the evils of anarchy. I know that these violences are in almost all cases committed by the lowest of the mob, that they are not to be imputed to the electors themselves, but to the assemblage of the idle and disorderly which every great town affords, but the evil is not less serious on that account, and does not less imperiously call on us for a remedy.
These, however, constitute but one portion, and indeed a very inferior portion, of the evil which attends the present mode of election. Bad as it is, if even at this price we obtained a parliament freely chosen by the people, we should have some consolation, although it would be our duty to endeavour to retain the good, and get rid of what was bad in the system. But this consolation is not afforded us, and in addition to the evil which I have already mentioned, we have the far greater one to guard against, which arises from the influence exercised over the voters at elections. Of what use is it to mark with precision how low in the scale of rank the right of voting for members of parliament shall commence, if you take no steps to secure to the electors the right which you propose to accord to them? It is the most cruel mockery to tell a man he may vote for A or B, when you know that he is so much under the influence of A, or the friends of A, that his voting for B would be attended with destruction to him. He cannot justly be said to have a vote, unless he have the free exercise of it, without prejudice to his fortunes. Is this the case at present? Is it not a delusion to say that every freeholder of 40s. a year has a vote for a member of parliament, when in most cases he cannot vote as he pleases, without ruin to himself? It is not he who has the vote, really and substantially, but his landlord; for it is for his benefit and interest, that it is exercised on the present system. Of what advantage would be the reform that is proposed, of extending the elective franchise to all householders, or as others recommend, to all males of twenty-one years of age, if this increased number of electors were to be, as they now are, completely under the influence of the same men, or of men having precisely the same views and interests, as those who play so grand a part in returning members to parliament? The more extended the suffrage, the more influence would be possessed by Peers, and the wealthy aristocracy of the country, and therefore the more certainly should we have a parliament which would be their representatives, and the advocates of their particular interests, and not of the interests of the great mass of the people. In many populous cities, householders are now said to have votes for the representatives of their city; but are not the cases numerous in which they dare not openly exercise the right? Is it to be expected that they will expose themselves to a resentment which will overwhelm them, whether it be from their best customers, the rich consumers, if they are shopkeepers,—the magistrates, if they are publicans,—their employers, if they are clerks, and in subordinate situations,— or any other class, who may be supposed to have an influence over their property? By extending the suffrage, an additional security is afforded against bribery, because the greater the number of electors the more difficult will it be to provide funds for the purpose of directly influencing votes by means of bribes. But it must not be forgotten that bribery is only one of the modes, and by no means the most efficacious mode, by which voters are influenced. Mr. Bentham’s sagacity did not fail to discover that terror was the great instrument of influence and corruption. Votes are more effectually secured by the fear of loss than by the hope of gain. Those whose characters afford security against the offering of bribes, and who would think themselves disgraced by a practice which is universally condemned, do not disdain to make use of the persuasive instrument of fear. In its operation it is silent— it is not necessary to proclaim to the voter the danger which he runs of disobliging his landlord, or patron; it is understood without explanation, and no one who hears me, can doubt of its powerful effects on every occasion. Although, then, by extending the suffrage you weaken the corruptive effect of bribery, you increase that which is produced by alarm and fear, for in proportion as the fortunes of the voter are more humble, the more surely will he be under the influence of those who have the power to sway those fortunes. Happily a security can be found against this influence, but if it could not, I should deem that an improvement which should raise the qualification, and limit the number of voters; for the chance of finding an independent spirit in electors would be increased, if the qualification was raised to £100 per annum, rather than if it continued as it is, or were lowered below 40 shillings. These, then, are the evils against which we have to provide, and the House will readily perceive that those which arise from riots, intoxication, and idleness, are of a different description from those which are the consequence of undue influence exercised over the minds, directly or indirectly, of the electors; and accordingly the bill before you offers two distinct remedies. To obviate the first evil, it is proposed to take the votes throughout the country on the same day, and, instead of the elections being for the whole of a county, and held in one single place, that votes be received in several districts at the same time. To obviate the second, it is proposed that the ballot, or the secret mode of election, be substituted for the open mode.
These two propositions are very distinct, and they should not be, as they often are, confounded; for one might be rejected, and the other adopted. Those, for example, who are of opinion that the public and noisy assemblage of the rabble about the hustings is attended with benefits outweighing the evils which have been stated, might reject that clause which proposes to take the votes by districts, but might nevertheless adopt the other which requires that the election should be by ballot. The people might assemble about the hustings as they now do; they might listen, or not listen, to the speeches of the candidates as their humour might dictate; they might shew all the usual marks of their sympathy or disapprobation, and yet the voting might be secret; and, on the contrary, those who are in favour of open voting, might approve of votes being given in districts, although they rejected the ballot.
According to the best judgment which I can form on this important subject, we ought to adopt both these clauses. That respecting time and place of voting will give us sufficient security against the disgusting exhibitions and riotous proceedings which have hitherto attended elections. Through the medium of the press, the candidate may make known his pretensions; through the same channel, objections may be made to his principles, or to his former conduct—the press is open to all, and the candidates would no longer be subjected to an ordeal which is not a test of merit but of endurance. Because a man has the honest ambition of representing a populous city in Parliament, must he make up his mind to endure all the insults which can be heaped upon him by the lowest of the rabble? It is said, that it is fit his claims should be examined into,—that without preparation he should be called upon immediately to explain what has been ambiguous in his former conduct;—what are his principles on the grand questions which are likely to be submitted to him; and, that he should be called upon to speak on any other matters which may be proposed to him. This might be useful if he presented himself before an impartial tribunal, but those who make this objection, are bound to shew that candidates on both sides are fairly listened to, and that even the semblance of justice is extended to them. One of the arguments now offered in favour of the borough system, and it is one of considerable weight, is, that without such boroughs, many men of merit would never be in Parliament—and why? because they are troubled with modesty; and with the feelings of gentlemen, which makes it intolerable to them to submit to the injustice, the insolence, and the insults of the lowest of the rabble. That we may be sure of the services of these men, then, I demand that this clause be adopted. These public meetings, it has been said, are useful in giving a tone to public feeling, and raising the lowest of the community in his own estimation, by making him feel that he has a share in the government of his country. Can he be said to have this share if he is without a vote? Does he show his importance by spitting at the candidate, by throwing dirt and filth in his face? This is not calculated to raise him in his own estimation; and if it be right that he should have a voice in the government of his country, give him that voice, and allow him to exercise it legally on the same terms with the first elector in the land, but do not delude us or him, by giving him the shadow, and calling it the substance of power!
The other clause, namely, that which establishes the ballot, appears to me to offer complete security against those evils which flow from the influence of power. If voting took place by ballot, all the influence now practised on voters would, in a great measure, cease; for, to what purpose would you threaten a man for the vote he should give, or how could you punish him for it when given, if by the regulation you were absolutely precluded from knowing for which candidate he voted? Establish the ballot, and every elector is from that moment in possession of a real and not of an imaginary privilege. Of what use would it be to threaten a publican with the loss of his licence, a farmer with the deprivation of his lease, a tradesman with the loss of your custom, when you can never know how he voted, unless he chose to communicate it to you? The elective franchise, if it should be thought expedient, might be extended. The very extension would secure you from direct bribery, for no fortune would be equal to bribe a nation of electors, and terror would cease to operate, for it would be in vain to endeavour to mark the victims. An honourable gentleman has said, that if the ballot were established it would not prevent candidates and the friends of candidates from endeavouring to get the promise of votes, and then he observes, that if the electors keep their promises, there will be no advantage from the ballot, as they will vote then precisely as they do now; but if they do not keep their promises, they will be guilty of an immoral act, which may justly be charged on this law. It is the latter proposition only which I am called upon to answer, for if the voters give and keep their promises, no objection can be made to the ballot on that account; it may be said to be useless, but cannot be proved to be pernicious. And with respect to the immorality of not keeping promises, the guilt would lie with those who exacted such unlawful promises. To make a promise of a vote which could not be conscientiously given, would be a crime, but it would be a still greater crime to keep it. The promise is unnecessary upon any other supposition than that of its not being right to perform it. What occasion to exact a promise of any man to do that which his own interest will lead him to do? and in giving his vote he is called upon by duty to act in conformity with his own interest. It may be expedient to instruct such a man, to enlighten him on the subject of his real interest, but here our efforts should cease, and we become criminal if we induce him to act contrary to the dictates of his own conscience, and, instead of condemning him for breaking a promise so criminally exacted and given, the most enlightened morality would teach and require that such promises should be violated. The law does not recommend or encourage any species of crime or immorality,—it is enacted with a view to correct an evil which is an insurmountable bar to good government; it requires that every man shall vote according to his conscience, without any deceit or subterfuge; and shall such a law be given up, because the enemies of good government may take advantage of the respect with which men ought to regard their promises, in order to subvert it. If the end we have in view be good, we must not be diverted from our purpose by any partial evil which may attend the means by which we are to attain it. All punishment is an evil, but is justified by the good end which it is to accomplish. It might much more rationally be objected to the excise laws, that they should not have been enacted because they offer temptations to crimes which would not have been committed but for those laws. And what shall we say of the laws against usury, and against the exportation of the coin? The end of these laws is bad—they are binding only on the conscientious, and have opened a wide door to the commission of the crimes of fraud and perjury. With these laws on our statute-book, are we to be discouraged from making one, which has the happiness of the people for its object, because it would be immoral (as it is alleged) to break a promise unlawfully and immorally exacted. But supposing that the breaking of such promises were immoral, would the practice be of long continuance? Would any man persevere in exacting promises, when he found by experience that the promisers did not consider them binding? He would not be tempted to continue an offence with great trouble to himself, as soon as he found that it was unattended with advantage. The immorality, then, to whomsoever it might attach, would soon be at an end; and the law would be efficacious without even this alloy.
One Hon. Gentleman has observed, that he is prepossessed in favour of open voting, without being able to give any reason why he prefers it. To that Hon. Gentleman I might answer, that I have a different prepossession from him, and the instinct of my mind would be just as good, as an argument, as the instinct of his. In fact one mode of voting can be preferred to another only as means to an end, in themselves they are alike indifferent.
To conclude, Sir, the establishment of the ballot would make this House what it ought to be, the real representatives of the electors, and not the representatives of those whose situation gives them a commanding influence over the will of the electors. I am not now considering whether it would be desirable that the elective franchise should be extended, kept on its present footing, or contracted within narrower limits, for on any of these suppositions, the ballot appears to me to be equally expedient. Whoever may be the electors, the representatives should represent them, and their interests, and not those whose interests may, on many occasions, be in direct opposition to theirs.