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Democratic elections



Voter fraud was still difficult with these Print-O-Matic voting machines. But the color red would still be a useful sight to see.

The campaigns for the forthcoming January elections are descending on America. Let us review some basic ideas about democratic elections, for which purpose we  can do no better than consult James Wilson.

James Wilson on democratic elections

Ballot box, symbol of democratic elections

A wooden ballot box, once used in the Northeast in the 1870’s. Photo: The Smithsonian Institution.

● James Wilson was one of six men who signed both the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. His contribution to the deliberations of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 was second only to that of James Madison. Wilson was also one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court as well as one of the first professors of law. He was regarded as the profoundest legal scholar of his generation.

More than other framers of the American Constitution, Wilson was a fervent advocate of democracy. His conception of democracy, however, or at least of what it means to vote in elections, differs significantly from today’s. With our current pseudo-presidential debates in mind, let us review a few passages from Wilson’s law lectures and speeches:

● In a free country, every citizen forms a part of the sovereign power: he possesses a vote, or takes a still more active part in the business of the commonwealth. The right and duty of giving that vote, the right and duty of taking that share, are necessarily attended with the duty of making that business the object of his study and inquiry….

● At every election [Wilson continues], a number of important appointments must be made.  To do this is, indeed, the business of a day.  But it ought to be the business of much more than a day to be prepared for doing it well.  When a citizen elects to office … he performs an act of the first political consequence. He should be employed, on every convenient occasion, in making researches after the proper persons for filling the different departments of power; in discussing, with his neighbours and fellow citizens, the qualities that should be possessed by those who fill the several offices, and in acquiring information … concerning the manners, and history, and characters of those who … candidates for the public choice.

● A habit of conversing and reflecting on these subjects, and of governing his actions by the result of his deliberations, will form, in the mind of the citizen, a uniform, a strong, and a lively sensibility to the interests of his country.  The same cause will produce a warm and enlightened attachment to those who are best fitted and best disposed to support and advance those interests.

● Wilson goes on to suggest that the habit of citizens to candidly acquire information concerning the manners, history, and characters of candidates for public office, tends to raise the level of those elected and to exert a salutary influence on their official conduct if only because they want to be worthy of the honor accorded them by their fellow citizens (to say nothing of their desire to be re-elected).

We see that for Wilson, voting – electing someone to public office, a person whose conduct can affect the welfare of the commonwealth – is a moral act requiring rational inquiry and candid judgment. The right to vote in an election involves the duty of citizens to inquire into the character and experience of the candidates and to make a candid judgment as to which candidate is best qualified to serve the interests of the community.

Democratic elections today: failure of the media

An uniformative news media make for bad results of democratic elections.

Haddock wrapped in newspaper. Photo: Des Colhoun; Creative Commons License

The preceding remarks should be juxtaposed with what American citizens, nowadays, know about the manners, history, and character of the candidates competing for the office of the President of the United States.

● Do the media augment or distort the citizen’s knowledge of these candidates: not only a candidate’s stand on public issues, but also on the candidate’s public philosophy or what America stands for as a nation vis-à-vis foreign enemies?

● Are controversial issues discussed in a serious manner and in relation to America’s enduring political ideas and moral values?

● Are citizens confronted by clear, alternative public policies?

● Does the enormous amount of money spent on political campaigns affect not only the quality of men and women who enter politics, but also on the concept of popular sovereignty, i.e. of government by the consent of the governed?

● Do these campaigns, in which candidates rely very much on the support of diverse ethnic groups, clarify or confuse America’s sense of national identity and purpose?

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[…] noted in my previous article on James Wilson, one of most learned of America’s Founding Fathers, the business of electing […]


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