Then and Now

Much has been said and written in the last few years, both in Canada and in the United States, about the role of money in politics and also about the importance of electoral procedures in enfranchising ― or disenfranchising ― citizens. But this is not a new problem, as a description of the English electoral arrangements in the 18th century in E.M. Wrong’s book, History of England, 1688-1815, shows.

The role of money was perhaps most obvious in elections for county representatives, at which “the poll could be kept open for fifteen days if one voter an hour were produced, and the voters’ expenses to the county town and back was often high” (p. 71). As a result, elections were “ruinous” (71): “[i]n 1803 a contest between three candidates for the two Yorkshire seats cost nearly half a million pounds,” (71) which, in 2012 money amounts to the mind-blowing amount of more than 43.5 million pounds, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. That is more than the total expenditures of all the political parties in the last general election in the UK (a sum that does not include, however, expenses by individual candidates). In consequence, though the franchise for these seats was relatively wide, “in most counties some family or alliance of families was too strong to be challenged, and these divided the representation between themselves” (71). Today, expanding voting options, for example by keeping polls open for longer (notably for early voting) is widely seen as enfranchising voters and thus making elections more democratic. In the 18th century, it wasn’t necessarily so.

In some elections the role of money was even more crude. Some boroughs were represented in Parliamenut but had very few voters ― one “had but six houses and at one time one elector” (72-73). Even in somewhat less extreme cases, the vote of every single voter in such “rotten” boroughs mattered a great deal. But contrary to what an optimist might be tempted to expect from the literature on political ignorance (which argues that voters are rationally ignorant because their individual decisions matter very little), the individual power of these voters did not necessarily motivate them to learn about the issues and choose the best candidate for the country. Rather, they chose to profit from their position: “at Stockbridge the 57 electors were known to have asked £60 each for their suffrages. As voting was open, the result of bribery could be ascertained” (73).

A more entertaining comparison concerns another much-discussed topic, the requirements that would-be voters must satisfy to prove their right to exercise the franchise. The issues in the 18th century were not ID or burqa-wearing voters, but rather the proof of one’s property qualification:

In a dozen [boroughs] any one, not receiving poor relief, who could prove himself possessed of a hearth by coaxing a kettle to boil—”pot-walloping”—had the vote. Before an election men could be seen repairing a doorway—for a door was evidence of householding—lighting a fire, spreading a table in public, to prove their electoral qualification. (72)

Invocations of history are often meant as lessons for the present, though such lessons more often then not go unlearned. But if there is a lesson here, I am not sure what it might be. Sometimes, I think, it enough to enjoy the similarities and the differences between the past and the present for their own sake, as curiosities.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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