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 Elections - not always free and fair

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Caro
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PostSubject: Elections - not always free and fair   Thu 12 Dec 2013, 05:15



I am reading Dickens' The Pickwick Papers (highly enjoyable so far) and Dickens has given a vivid, if possibly exaggerated, view of an election day in some town.  The Pickwickians arrive in town and are immediately assumed to favour the candidate of their host.  It is set in 1837, seven years after the 1832 Reform Act which effected some changes to electorates and voting including those pertaining to rotten boroughs.

 

In this town, where they are voting for their representative ( I presume for Parliament, though possibly for a mayoralty), the people (by which I mean men and this is never queried by either the characters in the books, or by Dickens in any authorial manner), after hours of speechifying and much noise and commotion, vote by show of hands.  This goes to one candidate and the other asks for a poll.  This is "fixed accordingly" and some days at least go by while people vote.  But there is, as far as I can tell, nothing that limits anyone from voting.  I think the Pickwickians, just arrived in town, could vote; I presume there was an age limit, and probably only men of property could vote.  But when there was just a show of hands, how was that policed? How was it policed when there was a poll? 

 

Dickens tells various stories through his characters of corruption, mostly by way of preventing people gettting to vote. A "shillin' a head the committee paid" to have people at the inn dragged out and put under the pump.  And one party bribed the barmaid at another pub to "hocus the brandy and water of fourteen unpolled electors" - ie put laudanum in the drink, so they went to sleep till after the election was over. Another man tells a story of his father being bribed to drive a coach into a canal to prevent the voters getting to town.

 

Nowadays our parties are allowed to take voters to election booths on the day of voting, but actively preventing people voting wouldn't go down at all well.  It is the Labour Party who do this mostly, having more voters without transport and with less motivation to vote.  (I have never lived anywhere more than 5 minutes walk from a polling booth, and usually more like two minutes from it.)  It seems there is not such a big difference, though, between that kind of encouragement and the other kind of discouragement, and we have lots of rules about influencing voters but this is allowed.  There is not to be any advertising of voting or elections on election day here, and our leader of the opposition is being charged (by a private citizen, I think, with a liking for litigation) with corruption or something for tweeting about a by-election on the day.  People take this quite seriously here - we always have comments about the party scrutineers who are allowed to wear their party ribbons at the polling booths; voters don't like this and often complain but it is permitted.

 

One thing that surprised me was the notes about hustings.  It's a word that has continued in use, even though the actual husting (temporary platform where the show of hands was asked for).  Politicians are still said to take to the hustings. My little Pocket Oxford dictionary just says it is an election campaign or proceedings from Old English = house of assembly, from Old Norse.

 

I feel that Britain, or more specifically England perhaps, was a leader in parliamentary procedures and rules for voting leading eventually to democracy, but perhaps others could correct me on this.  I presume there were rules in Greek, Egyptian and Roman societies for electing some representatives, but perhaps they were all appointed. 



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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Thu 12 Dec 2013, 09:10

An interesting subject Caro.

Just off the top of my head, in eighteenth century England all eligible voters - eligible by virtue of being male, aged at least 21, and a land-owner or house-holder worth over a certain sum (which varied depending on what type of 'district' they were in ) - were registered in the electoral district's Poll Book. These Poll Books were, I think, up-dated for every election rather than being maintained yearly .... and they are now of course a mine of information for genealogists. Remember also that prior to the 1832 Reform Act an 'electoral district', ie that represented by an MP, could be diverse: boroughs - of several types and vastly differing populations; counties; universities - all had their own MPs. During an election voters were checked off against the Poll Book as they mounted the hustings, and then they openly declared to whom they were giving their vote (no secret ballot) which was duly recorded as a tally, or rather tallies, as I think all sides kept their own and could call for a re-vote if all the tallies didn't tally. Although the ballot wasn't secret no names were officially recorded - at least I've never come across an official record showing how individuals actually voted - eg. I've never seen anything marked against names in the actual Poll Books. In England the secret ballot was introduced in the Ballot Act of 1872 .... In France the secret ballot had existed since the 1795 Republican Constitution and this was carried forward into the 1848 Constitution. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte notoriously tried to abolish the secret ballot for the 1851 election (which followed his 1851 coup d'état), but faced with strong opposition he finally backed down and allowed a secret ballot.... he got voted in as "Ruler of the Second French Empire" anyway.

Here's Hogarth's "Humours of an election", 1755, with hustings, clerks checking voters against the Poll Book and recording votes, no secret ballot, voter intimidation .... and disabled voters being "helped" to cast their votes:



I'm sure others know more than I but I suspect Roman elections were very well ordered - the laws concerning the conduct of elections were certainly described in the Tabellariae Leges. I believe elections for the various civic posts were held on the Field of Mars: citizens were again checked off against the official register before being allowed to enter. They then gathered in the roped off area of their chosen candidate (who no doubt tried to entice the wavering voter into his camp with the offer of 'free' wine and nibbles) and finally heads were counted by officials ... the lictors, maybe?

In Greek city state democracies things were presumably easier since the electorate was so much smaller and one could at least recognise most other eligible voters. I'm sure attendance was compulsory  .... weren't the less-than-responsible citizens routinely rounded up by official slaves wielding the dreaded 'ruddled rope'?

EDIT : Re Roman elections:

Either Lindsey Davis or Steven Saylor describe the events of a Roman election in some detail .... when one of their fictional characters (either Falco or Gordianus respectively) have to undergo the trials, tribulations and treats of a Roman election. Davis and Saylor are of course primarily writers of historical fiction, but both are usually very well-informed and well-researched regarding general 'facts'. I'll try and find which book it was.


Last edited by Meles meles on Thu 12 Dec 2013, 12:17; edited 7 times in total (Reason for editing : Editted many times as I thought of new things .... I'll stop now.)
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Gilgamesh of Uruk
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Thu 12 Dec 2013, 21:28

Roman elections must have changed from Caesar's time, then. In those days, people voted in their "tribes", thus C. Ivlivs Caesar would have voted with the Ivlian tribe, and the victory went to the candidates who were the chosen representatives of the majority of tribes, despite the fact that the plebeian tribes being massively larger than those of the patricians, this rarely represented the majority of citizens.
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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Fri 13 Dec 2013, 00:09

Oh Gil, what a polite and gentlemanly way of pointing out that I didn't know what I was talking about regarding roman elections  Embarassed  ....  but as I did say, I was sure others would certainly know more .... It just shows that one should never rely on memory especially at my age. And now I can't even remember where I've put that book too!
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Sat 14 Dec 2013, 22:06

No, I wasn't suggesting you had got it wrong - I'd expect there to have been loads of changes between the late republican election and one under the Flavians, certainly the old "cursus" of moving up through the magistracy wasn't observed any more, probably a lot of other things too - they certainl needed to be reformed if the accounts of Caesar's and Cicero's elections are to be trustede.

Short outline to be found here http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/romerepublic/qt/052611-How-the-Romans-Voted-in-the-Roman-Republic.htm
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Wed 18 Dec 2013, 03:18

Thanks for those knowledgable replies.  Very interesting. I suppose I have seen Hogarth's picture before but I don't really remember it and it gives a great sense of the times and the event. 

The political column in the NZ Listener I was reading after I wrote that talked about giving people a nudge to vote.  It was specifically talking about the power of door-knocking amd foot-slogging by Labour.  Jane Clifton said, "The decent limits to voter-nudging also remain untested, When does a nudge become electoral corruption? Labour may have sailed close to the wind during one of its past great election-day mobilisations when it handed out free KFC. It's not a bribe to offer someone a lift to the polls, but we probably need to have it clarified how far past the promise of a cup of tea and a gingerbut afterwards it's possible for parties to go and remain within both the spirit and the letter of electoral law. There are times when the stoutest-hearted of us would exchange our soul for a well-timed offer of chocolate."
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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Wed 18 Dec 2013, 08:18

In the end though the poll in NZ is secret, so one can profit by the lift to and from the electoral station, eat as many ginger nuts and chocolate hobnobs as possible, take home as much KFC as one can stuff in one's pockets ..... and still vote for someone else.

Are people really so fickle in their political views that they feel 'honour bound' to vote against their principles despite there being no possible repurcussions, when they are being obviously bribed and with just a few biscuits too? Frankly my mother would make it a point of honour to act the poor little old lady just to get the lift and cup of tea, and then deliberately vote for the other side out of spite!


Last edited by Meles meles on Wed 18 Dec 2013, 08:39; edited 1 time in total
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Elections - not always free and fair   Wed 18 Dec 2013, 08:39

Maybe some people will be swayed through small kindnesses and freebies, but to deplore this and assume that people should all by default vote on the basis of political principle is simply idealistic, and has nothing in common whatsoever with the more realistic approach of so-called ancient society.

The idea of a "free and fair" election would have horrified those who first devised election procedures as part of their political structure. And equally the idea that inducements to vote, or vote in a particular way, might be unethical would never have crossed their minds. The Greek city states that first concocted the system back to which we trace the legacy of democracy, and the Romans afterwards who adopted and adapted these procedures for their own use, were not intent on establishing political policy through consensus - which when one compares this attitude to our "modern" faith, often misplaced, in this being a primary function of democracy despite the evidence to the contrary, is probably much more intelligent and honest an assessment of democracy's true function and worth.

It is worth bearing in mind also that the default terms of office for elected officials in Greece and Rome were traditionally very short by our modern standards and that both societies went to great pains to establish rules whereby those elected must hand over to a successor once their terms of office - normally a calendar year - were up. As checks and balances in a democratic system go this was one that could well be argued to have been eminently and demonstrably effective over centuries - indeed for much longer than our modern notions of democracy have been instituted as "standard" in those countries that employ them. On the down side it often meant that an able and effective government was replaced when it might have been better to continue under its regime. However it effectively eliminated "career politicians" as major players. There are very few of us who now could name any of the effective governors of the Athenian city state at its height or indeed many Roman officials who did not also establish their fame through other channels - normally military.

The upshot of all this was that politics, and the systems used to establish its chief participants, were personality based and openly so. Policies occasionally played a leading role but were always associated strongly with the personalities promoting them. Those in the electorate who were faced with often difficult decisions regarding which person or policy to support could console themselves however in the knowledge that a poor choice would not necessarily lead to much anyway since the whole structure was bound to be altered a year or so later. Until Marius, Sulla and the other dictators destroyed that certainty for ever any member of the electorate who took their responsibilities seriously would have had a right to expect that their contribution to the process be rewardable. After all they were primarily helping a candidate raise their public profile and prestige and only minimally affecting the political policies of the regime. It was almost a personal contract, and in any good contract both sides benefit. Inducement was not only expected but a healthy attribute of the process.

What amazes me is not so much how we have developed a more sophisticated structure that we call domocracy - its complexity is a given compared to Roman and Greek predecessors - but that we so dishonestly assume that we have developed something better than theirs. In truth that element of the personal contract as well as the motive of self-interest lies at the root of any system based on the idea of representation. All we have done is accommodate these notions dishonestly through ignoring them or rationalising them under other terms to pretend they are something else. Our predecessors were much more honest about things and, it could well be argued, produced a more effective and egalitarian form of government as a result, at least for those classes who were invited to participate.
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