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chapter 61: What the Machine Has to Do - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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What the Machine Has to Do
The system I have described is simple in principle, and would be simple in working if applied in a European country where elective offices are few. The complexity which makes it puzzle many Americans, and bewilder all Europeans, arises from the extraordinary number of elections to which it is applied, and from the way in which the conventions for different election districts cross and overlap one another. A few instances may serve to convey to the reader some impression of this profusion of elections and intricacy of nominating machinery.
In Europe a citizen rarely votes more than twice or thrice a year, sometimes less often, and usually for only one person at a time. Thus in England any householder, say at Manchester or Liverpool, votes once a year for a town councillor (if there is a contest in his ward); once in four (on an average) for a member of the House of Commons.1 Allowing for the frequent cases in which there is no municipal contest in his ward, he will not on an average vote more than one and a half times each year. It is much the same in Scotland, nor do elections seem to be more frequent in France, Germany, or Italy, or even perhaps in Switzerland.
In the United States, however, the number of elective offices is so enormous and the terms of office usually so short that the voter is not only very frequently called upon to go to the polls, but has a very large number of candidates placed before him from among whom he must choose those whom he prefers.2 Moreover, besides the voting at the regular election, he ought also to vote at primaries, i.e., to vote to select the candidates from among whom he is subsequently to choose those whom he desires to have as officers; while in many states the law now fixes the day and manner in which he ought to do so. And as if this was not burden enough, he has also, in a good many states, to vote also on a number of legislative propositions which the law requires to be submitted to him for his decision instead of their being left to state legislatures or city councils. As Professor Beard well observes:3
The glaring absurdity of this system can best be illustrated by concrete examples, which bring home the details of the voters’ task. I have before me the ballot for the thirteenth and thirty-fourth wards of the sixth congressional district of Chicago in 1906. It is two feet and two inches by eighteen and one-half inches; and it contains 334 names distributed with more or less evenness as candidates for the following offices:
State treasurer, state superintendent of public instruction, trustees of the University of Illinois, representatives in Congress, state senator, representatives in the state Assembly, sheriff, county treasurer, county clerk, clerk of the probate court, clerk of the criminal court, clerk of the circuit court, county superintendent of schools, judge of the county court, judge of the probate court, members of the board of assessors, member of the board of review, president of the board of county commissioners, county commissioners (ten to be elected on general ticket), trustees of the sanitary district of Chicago (three to be elected), clerk of the municipal court, bailiff of the municipal court, chief justice of the municipal court, judges of the municipal court (nine to be elected), judges of the municipal court for the four-year term (nine to be elected), judges of the municipal court for the two-year term (nine to be elected).
In Sioux City, Iowa, the following nine elections were held in 1908:
Surely the people of the United States believe, with the inhabitants of Lilliput, “that the common size of human understandings is fitted to some station or other, and that Providence never intended to make the management of public affairs a mystery.”
It is not only the elections that bother us. The primaries, whether under the convention or direct nomination systems are, if possible, more complicated; and, as everybody knows, whoever controls the primaries controls the strategic point in our whole election system. If all of the voters, moved by the appeals of the good government people and stung by the taunts of the bosses, were to appear at the primaries of their parties, they would not be able to change the actual operation of the nomination system; for the preliminary work of the nominations, owing to the intricacies of the process, must be done by the experts—a fact too often overlooked by those who advocate direct nominations as a cure for boss rule. Within the cycle of four years, every party voter in every election district in New York City, with minor variations, must vote from one to four times for the following party candidates:
(1) Members of the city committee; (2) members of the county committee; (3) members of the assembly district committee; (4) delegates to an aldermanic district convention; (5) delegates to a municipal court district convention; (6) delegates to a borough convention; (7) delegates to a city convention; (8) delegates to a county convention; (9) delegates to a judicial district convention; (10) delegates to an assembly district convention; (11) delegates to a senatorial district convention; (12) delegates to a congressional district convention; (13) delegates to an assembly district convention.
The best way to demonstrate the colossal task set before the bewildered New York voter is to describe an actual primary ballot—the Democratic ballot for the thirty-second assembly district. It is eight and one-half inches by two feet four inches. It contains the names of 835 candidates: 417 for members of the county general committee, 104 for delegates to the county convention, 40 for delegates to the first district municipal court convention, 65 for delegates to the second district municipal court convention, 104 for delegates to the thirty-second assembly district convention and 105 for delegates to the thirty-fourth, thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth aldermanic district conventions.
Let us now take another illustration from Massachusetts, and regard the system from another side by observing how many sets of delegates a primary will have to send to the several nominating conventions which cover the local area to which the primary belongs.4
A Massachusetts primary will choose the following sets of persons, including committee-men, candidates, and delegates:
The above are annual. Then every two years—
Then every four years—
In New York City many posts have recently been made appointive, yet at the November elections there were in 1908 eighty-six candidates for the offices to be filled by election. In 1909 when a mayor was to be chosen, there were eighty-one candidates, although the party lists had been so far united that a good many of the candidates on several of these lists were the same. The ballot paper was 3 feet 9 1/2 inches long and 15 inches wide and had eighteen columns of candidates besides a nineteenth in which the voter might place the names, under the respective offices, of the persons he desired to vote for who were not on the printed lists of candidates. So at Chicago in the November election of 1908, there were on the ballot paper (exclusive of the names of presidential electors) the names of 195 candidates, nominated to fill 46 posts in the state and the county, as well as the municipal judgeships, but no other city offices. However, I need not weary the reader with further examples, for the facts above stated are fairly illustrative of what goes on over the whole Union.
It is hard to keep one’s head through this mazy whirl of offices, elections, and primaries or nominating conventions. In America itself one finds few ordinary citizens who can state the details of the system, though these are of course familiar to professional politicians.
The first thing that strikes a European who contemplates this organization is the great mass of work it has to do. In Ohio, for instance, there are, if we count in such unpaid offices as are important in the eyes of politicians, on an average more than twenty offices to be filled annually by election. Primaries or conventions have to select candidates for all of these. Managing committees have to organize the primaries, ‘run’ the conventions, conduct the elections. Here is ample occupation for a class of professional men.
What are the results which one may expect this abundance of offices and elections to produce?
Where the business is that of selecting delegates and, in the particular state, the selection of candidates is made by the older kind of primaries and conventions, it will be hard to find an adequate number of men of any mark or superior intelligence to act as delegates. The bulk will be persons unlikely to possess, still more unlikely to exercise, a careful or independent judgment. The functions of delegate being in the case of most conventions humble and uninteresting, because the offices are unattractive to good men, persons whose time is valuable will not, even if they do exist in sufficient numbers, seek it. Hence the best citizens, i.e., the men of position and intelligence, will leave the field open to inferior persons who have any private or personal reason for desiring to become delegates. I do not mean to imply that there is necessarily any evil in this as regards most of the offices, but mention the fact to explain why few men of good social position think of the office of delegate, except to the national convention once in four years, as one of trust or honour.
If on the other hand the new statutory primaries have in the particular state superseded conventions, then the attendance at these primaries and the choice of candidates there is a serious task thrown on the voter for which his knowledge of the persons from whom candidates are to be selected may be quite inadequate. As Professor Beard remarks:
The direct nomination device will duplicate the present complicated mechanism and render it necessary to have abler experts who understand not only the mysteries of the regular election law but the added mysteries of the primary law as well. . . . The primary law is in most States a booklet of no mean proportions and taken in connection with the ordinary election law is enough to stagger the experienced student to say nothing of the inexperienced voter for whose guidance it is devised.
The number of places to be filled by election being very large, ordinary citizens will find it hard to form an opinion as to the men best qualified for the offices. Their minds will be distracted among the multiplicity of places. In large cities particularly, where people know little about their neighbours, the names of most candidates will be unknown to them, and there will be no materials, except the recommendation of a party organization, available for determining the respective fitness of the candidates put forward by the several parties. Most of the elected officials are poorly paid. Even the governor of a great state may receive no more than $5,000 to $8,000 a year, the lower officials much less. The duties of most offices require no conspicuous ability, but can be discharged by any honest man of good sense and business habits. Hence they will not (unless where they carry large fees or important patronage) be sought by persons of ability and energy, because such persons can do better for themselves in private business; it will be hard to say which of many candidates is the best; the selection will rouse little stir among the people at large.
Those who have had experience of public meetings know that to make them go off well, it is as desirable to have the proceedings prearranged as it is to have a play rehearsed. You must select beforehand not only your chairman, but also your speakers. Your resolutions must be ready framed; you must be prepared to meet the case of an adverse resolution or hostile amendment. This is still more advisable where the meeting is intended to transact some business, instead of merely expressing its opinion; and when certain persons are to be selected for any duty, prearrangement becomes not merely convenient but indispensable in the interests of the meeting itself, and of the business which it has to dispatch. “Does not prearrangement practically curtail the freedom of the meeting?” Certainly it does. But the alternative is confusion and a hasty unconsidered decision. Crowds need to be led; if you do not lead them they will go astray, will follow the most plausible speaker, will break into factions and accomplish nothing. Hence if a primary is to discharge properly its function of selecting candidates for office or a number of delegates to a nominating convention, it is necessary to have a list of candidates or delegates settled beforehand. And for the reasons already given, the more numerous the offices and the delegates, and the less important the duties they have to discharge, so much the more necessary is it to have such lists settled; and so much the more likely to be accepted by those present is the list proposed. On the other hand the new statutory primary intended to secure the freedom of the voter is also so complex a matter that preliminary steps must be taken by experts familiar with the law and practice governing it.
The reasons have already been stated which make the list of candidates put forth by a primary or by a nominating convention carry great weight with the voters. They are the chosen standard-bearers of the party. A European may remark that the citizens are not bound by the nomination; they may still vote for whom they will. If a bad candidate is nominated, he may be passed over. That is easy enough where, as in England, there are only one or two offices to be filled at an election, where these few offices are important enough to excite general interest, and where therefore the candidates are likely to be men of mark. But in America the offices are numerous, they are mostly unimportant, and the candidates are usually obscure. Accordingly guidance is not merely welcome, but essential. Even in England the voters may in large boroughs know little of the names submitted and be puzzled how to cast his vote, and the party as a whole votes for the person who receives the party nomination from the organization authorized to express the party view. Hence the high importance attached to “getting the nomination” which in so many places is equivalent to an election; hence the care bestowed on constructing the nominating machinery; hence the need for prearranging the lists of delegates to be submitted to the primary, and of candidates to come before the convention.
I have sought in this chapter first to state how the nominating machine is constituted, and what work it has to do, then to suggest some of the consequences which the quantity and nature of that work may be expected to entail. We may now go on to see how in practice the work turns out to be done.
 He may also vote once a year for guardians of the poor, but this office is usually so little sought that the election excites slight interest and comparatively few persons vote. If he goes to a vestry meeting he may, in places where there is a select vestry, vote for its members.
 Speaking generally the ordinary citizen has to vote for five sets of offices, viz., federal, state, district, county, city, the federal elections coming once in two years (Congress) and once in four (presidential election) and the others at longer or shorter (usually short) intervals according to the laws of the particular state. Even a single city election may present a very complicated problem to the voter.
Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XXIV. p. 598. Professor Beard’s article entitled The Ballot’s Burden contains many valuable facts and remarks on the way in which the complexity of nominating and election machinery destroys that freedom of the citizen which it was originally meant to secure.
 I owe the following list, and the explanatory note at the end of the volume, to the kindness of a friend in Massachusetts (Mr. G. Bradford of Boston), who has given much attention to the political methods of his country.
 A “town” in New England is the unit of rural local government corresponding to the township of the Middle and Western states. See Chapter 48 ante.
 See further the note to this chapter in the Appendix.