Now there are worrying calls for restricting the franchise

7th April 2021

Over at the American site National Review there is a call – in all seriousness – for the franchise to be restricted.


(‘Don’t give oxygen to such things,’ demand those unaware that ‘not giving oxygen’ to Trumpism and Brexit did nothing to stop the rise of such notions – but this is a law and policy blog and it exists to offer comment on such developments.)


The contention at the National Review moves from the fact that as there are certain restrictions on voters – for example, felons – to urging that there should be other restrictions.

The entire piece is a practical exercise in political sophistry.

Yet it was commissioned for and published on a well-known website.

It is an attempt to re-open debates that one would have thought were long settled.

It is nothing less than an effort to re-impose Jim Crow type voting restrictions.

It is a dangerous development.


This law and policy blog is written from a liberal rather than a democratic perspective.

That is say that there are certain things – such as fundamental human rights – that should not be subject to votes.

Even if a majority of people supported the torture of one human being, that torture would still be absolutely wrong.

Such a liberal perspective is alert to and wary of the consequences of populism and demagogues and majoritarianism.

Democracy can be illiberal – and just because a thing has a democratic mandate, it would not make a thing that is fundamentally illiberal right and proper.


When things are subject to democratic oversight and control, then the votes should be equal and the franchise as universal as possible, and there should not be ‘super-voters’ with more democratic power than others.

In the United Kingdom, it actually used to be the case that such privileged voters did exist – those with more of a ‘stake’ in the community would/should have a better chance of a vote – and these were bog-standard arguments in the lead up to the 1832 reform act.

In the United States, such arguments were used to in effect disenfranchise slaves and those descended from slaves.

The anti-democratic arguments now being put forward have not really been put forward so earnestly and with such force since the 1800s.

It is almost as if the ‘march of democracy’ has not only halted but is now retreating – a corrective to the simple notion of linear political progress.

Authoritarianism and anti-democracy, like illiberalism, has never really gone away – it just was not so prominent for a while, at least in the United Kingdom – making liberals and progressives complacent.

Perhaps such anti-democratic views are just a blip – and we will carry on heading towards the right side of history.

Or perhaps there is no natural line of political progression – and every generation has to win the arguments for liberalism and democracy afresh.

The post-2016 anti-democratic, illiberal turn is not over yet.

Brace, brace.


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10 thoughts on “Now there are worrying calls for restricting the franchise”

  1. There were University MPs at Westminster until they were abolished in 1949; if you’d gone to the right university, you got to vote for a second MP.

    There were University MPs in the old Stormont in N Ireland; they weren’t abolished until just before Stormont itself was dissolved. In Council elections, if you were a property holder you got an extra vote, and another if you’d gone to Queen’s University, Belfast.

    1. In addition to plural voting (which largely favoured the Unionist cause, there was also extensive gerrymandering, such that in Derry for instance, Unionist voters represented one third of the electorate, but held two thirds of the seats.
      Of course, nothing like that could happen today…

      1. Not only that; the first two parliaments at the old Stormont were held under proportional representation (single transferrable vote). Fearful of their majority, the Unionists got this changed for the third and subsequent parliaments to first past the post (although the university seats always used STV).

        STV was the voting system imposed from Westminster on both northern Ireland and southern Ireland. The Irish Free State, southern Ireland’s “successor” used STV, as did (the republic of) Ireland for every Dáil since inception.


    Apparently voting fairness is an expression of narcissism!

    To quote- “A better framework is that voting is an intrinsically public act. The person undertaking it should reflect on its consequences for the public good, not just for himself.”

    The conservative logic is therefore that the quality of vote is determined by the difficulty and openness in casting it.

    Horrifying stuff.

  3. There was a fascinating discussion this afternoon on ‘Thinking Allowed” that primed my brain for your post today, David. On it, Robert D Putnam and Laurie Taylor were discussing the swings between the “I” and “we” societies, both in the UK and especially in the US. Putnam feels that the pandemic is bringing the pendulum in the US back from the “I” to the “we” society, where community is more important than individual/selfish norms that thrived under Trump.

    That debate gave me heart that we may indeed be in the early stages of a renaissance of community here, one where we care as much for our neighbour as for feathering our own nest. And if this is the case, I can only hope that the case for reducing the suffrage would be promptly shot down were it to gain serious traction in either the US or the UK.

    Mind you, here in the UK there is the real threat posed by the looming requirement for voter ID. As a recent article in the Guardian pointed out, this requirement (if the proposed law is passed) would effectively disenfranchise anyone who cannot provide photo ID of a type accepted at the polling station. Whatever happens across the Pond, at least while this Government holds power, we do perhaps need to be aware that universal suffrage is not a given.

    I sometimes wish that certain people I know would swerve the polling station, but I am at one with Voltaire over the right of others to disagree with my opinions, so I must accept that I won’t always like the governments that a poll produces. I’m not confident, however, that all political parties share my liberal ideals.

    I hope David will not mind my posting a link to the Guardian article:

  4. My in-laws were raised behind the Iron Curtain and grew up looking to the West and especially the USA as the benchmark for freedom and civilisation. They thrilled when Reagan called “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, and in the 1990s embraced their new freedoms, secure in the knowledge that their past had just been a hiatus on the inevitable progress to sunlit uplands.

    If only they’d known that was to be the highpoint. I’ve watched their falling faces as they witness one political betrayal after another: Blair’s mendacious Iraq policy, Obama’s drone diplomacy, the frivolous lies of the BrExit referendum, the triumph of Trumpism, but learning that American conservatives are nudging and winking towards oligarchy will still seem like a notable milestone on the return road to hell.

  5. It is interesting that you say that a “liberal perspective” requires that certain things not be subject to votes: the same is surely true from a “conservative” perspective of basic right and wrong. The example of torture you cite, and many others, would no doubt be held by most – but certainly not all – of both traditions.

    Perhaps there is a different distinction to be drawn between those that believe some values transcend day-to-day concerns, no matter how significant, and others that would subordinate everything to the immediate interests of themselves or their tribes.

  6. The National Review gets one thing right: the increasingly rare correct use of “begs the question” and it deserves plaudits for that. As for the rest, I’m with you.

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