Wrongly labelled ‘universal franchise’ is why we can’t have nice things

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 28 March 2024

There is no such thing as ‘universal franchise’. It does not and has never existed. All franchise – everywhere and always – is qualified.

The term ‘universal franchise’ is at worst a marketing ploy that describes a specific form of qualified franchise which has no inherent claim to superiority, compared to many other conceivable forms of qualified franchise.

Rob Duigan, a prominent Cape independence advocate and editor of the Cape Independent, wrote a response to my previous column, ‘How are liberals to respond to calls for Cape independence?’

His article, ‘Cape independence and immigration policy: a response to Martin van Staden’, homes in on my concern with a hypothetically independent Cape’s border and immigration policy. To me, liberals should only support Cape independence if it is a means through which to secure more liberty. A restrictive approach to freedom of movement would mean moving at least one step away from the freedom that South Africans enjoy today.

Accommodating democracy

This is not another article on Cape independence. Rather, it is one specific part of Duigan’s article that triggered this rejoinder.

Duigan writes that the ‘Cape will have universal franchise’, and for this reason, if my liberal approach to immigration and borders is embraced, the Cape would be signing its own death warrant before it was even born. If it allowed anyone entry without ensuring some kind of political-cultural compatibility, eventually they or their descendants would vote in Cape elections and replace its generally liberal dispensation with a more authoritarian or redistributionist one.

The democratic principle has always sat uneasily with me. As I wrote in another column, ‘Every false and real harm liberalism has ostensibly done to society has been a result of democracy, not the freedom of the individual. And if we want to solve the problem, we must solve the democratic problem and leave liberty undisturbed.’

In that same article, I wrote that, ‘Democratic rent-seeing is inevitable because the competitive nature of the democratic system necessarily rewards (and thus incentivises) those who promise ever more and greater benefits to the electorate. Since the State has no resources of its own, this can only be achieved by taking (increasingly) from some and giving to others.’

This is why, in a ‘universal franchise’ democracy, one could make the argument that there must be restrictive conditions on allowing ‘foreigners’ across the border. One certainly does not desire to welcome people into the country if their designs are to vote themselves additional goodies at the expense of hardworking and productive first-comers.

We must, therefore, restrict freedom to accommodate democracy.

This is a dangerous proposition that undermines every significant liberal victory won in the past three centuries. To the extent that democracy serves liberty, it must be championed and strengthened. But to the extent that democracy harms liberty, it must be unceremoniously thrown overboard or, at the very least, modified or adapted so that it does not harm liberty.

This includes the dangerous and fallacious notion of so-called ‘universal franchise’.

No such thing as universal franchise

The first and potentially most important observation is that there is no such thing as ‘universal franchise’, not in South Africa and nowhere notable anywhere else in the world.

‘Universal franchise’ is, at best, a shorthand we have chosen to describe a specific form of qualified franchise or, at worst, a marketing ploy that seeks to dishonestly legitimise this form of qualified franchise at the expense of competing democratic models.

If the former – shorthand – then we dare not elevate a mechanism of convenience to the status of an immutable principle. If the latter, we should ask ourselves why we feel the need to misrepresent our chosen model of democracy if it is so superior to all other models.

This is how franchise is presently qualified in South Africa: one must be a South African citizen, one must be at least 18 years old, one must have a residential address, one must be a registered voter, and one must possess an identity document.

There is nothing ‘universal’ about this. In fact, the requirement of possessing an identity document is extremely controversial in some jurisdictions, so there is certainly nothing ‘universal’ about that either.

This dispensation is not even ‘universal adult franchise’. Not all adults can vote. The adult must be a South African citizen. They must have an address – committed nomads and tramps need not apply. They must have gone through the rigmarole of getting an identity document, and then of registering to vote.

‘Identifiable, registered, and resident adult citizen franchise’ does not quite have the same ring as ‘universal franchise’ to it. It is not universal franchise. It is qualified, and it is not written in any electoral bible (not even in the Constitution) that these specific qualifications are the be-all and end-all of franchise.

Why we can’t have nice things

We fear open immigration (in part) because of ‘how they will vote’. Clearly, the vote (representing potential rent-seeking and tyranny) is the worry – and that is a good worry to have. The mere presence of immigrants is not the real worry, and nor should it be. Most (whether ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’) immigrants are perfectly peaceful and seek to be productive contributors to whatever social setting they find themselves in.

But just like native citizens, naturalised immigrants make poor political choices, not because they are malicious or stupid, but because we have designed our democratic institutions in a way that incentivises such poor choices.

It should surprise nobody that our collective decision to make governments a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth – when this must be exclusively a market-based affair – has led to deprived people voting for political parties and candidates that seek to distribute the most. Nor should it surprise us that our decision to make governments a mechanism for the enforcement of religious and cultural values – when this must be exclusively a personal and social affair – has led to the most zealous people voting for parties and candidates that seek to enforce their own religion or culture.

Of course, a person who has not had a good meal for a week will vote for a political party that promises to instantly relieve their poverty. Of course, a devout Muslim who places their religion above other considerations will tend to vote for a party that promises to breathe Islam into governance. We cannot blame the voter for this, but the system that encourages it.

The best and worst of democracy

How franchise is ultimately modelled is arbitrary, and we over-moralise it at the peril of our freedom.

The key liberal principle at play is this: those who are bound by the laws enacted by a given legislature should have a say in the composition of that legislature.

This is what is meant by the idea that government may only subsist with the ‘consent of the governed’. This is what is meant by Abraham Lincoln’s famous line championing ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

This is a general principle, not an absolute one, because children, invalids, and foreigners are also bound by laws, despite not being enfranchised. Nonetheless, it is this principle alone (as opposed to the specific mechanics of franchise) that must be our guiding light.

Turning formalities – age of franchise and other qualifiers – into principles takes our eyes off the prize and disallows us from formulating significantly more rational and effective forms of qualified franchise than our current qualified franchise. These alternatives would have to bring out the best in democracy (dispersal of power, accountability, participatory governance) and limit or eliminate the worst (rent-seeking, majoritarian tyranny, shirking of responsibility).

Who pays, says

We have decided that 18 somehow represents the age at which a voter would have the ability to make sensible decisions at the ballot box.

Fine, if the line must be drawn somewhere, it might as well be drawn at 18. But it is a thumb-suck.

Everyone reading these words right now has, at some point in their lives, come across someone under 18 who had better sense than someone else (far) over 18.

So, having decided to draw this arbitrary line – because we can ‘somewhat clearly’ see when someone will and will not be able to make sensible decisions – why can we not draw similar lines that at least ‘somewhat clearly’ help us arrive at even more sensible conclusions?

And what more ‘somewhat clear’ (at least as ‘somewhat clear’ as age) mechanism could there be than to link tax contribution to franchise? Forget about educational or property ownership requirements – like the old Cape franchise – that tell one absolutely nothing about anything.

The principle of ‘who pays, says’ is one we adhere to in virtually all areas of life, but not in the crucial area of franchise.

If we are to expect the wealthy in society, under a dispensation of progressive taxation, to contribute the most to the government’s coffers so that it may ‘do good things,’ then the wealthy must expect their say to be proportionate to their contribution. Anything less is evidently an injustice.

To say that those who pay more taxes should have more of a say during election time is not akin to saying those who do not pay taxes or who pay very little taxes should have no say. Of course they must have a say, for they, too, are bound by the laws.

Somehow, we have decided that franchise can under no circumstances be based on tax or wealth. This decision is arbitrary and nonsensical. It is far more ‘unjust’ to assign franchise to someone based on the mere fact that they were born in this territory, or happen to be older than 18 at this moment, than it would be to assign franchise to someone who contributes a significant portion of government revenue.

For now, I will not dwell on precisely how this kind of franchise is structured. It might exclude corporations and thus encourage the wealthy to pay more personal income tax so as to enhance their say. It might even not be based on absolute contribution at all, and instead based on what proportion of their income a taxpayer voluntarily decides to pay in taxes. This would allow a relatively poor person who decides to pay more in taxes to have a greater say than an incredibly rich person who decides to keep more of their money.

Whatever the case, these are all formalities and mechanics that should be analysed based on practical, not principled or over-moralised, considerations.

Such a system will, of course, introduce certain difficulties. But the general principle – who pays, says – must surely be observed. It will go a long way to ensuring that not only immigrants, but also native citizens, cannot simply utilise government to short-circuit their responsibility to see to their own welfare.

Having mechanisms that guard against rent-seeking by the wealthy would be a necessary addition.

Best objection

The best objection to what I have proposed is that in the absence of so-called ‘universal franchise’, political elites will try to rejig the franchise law in their favour and entrench their own power. So rather establish something akin to a ‘universal’ principle of franchise that, when interfered with, sounds alarm bells.

I agree.

The problem is that even the qualified model of franchise we incorrectly call ‘universal franchise’ today is not uniform around the world.

Some of the youngest countries in the world, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, have franchise laws that deviate substantially from it. There, Russia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and the European Union (EU) imposed a form of ethnic democracy in response to serious ethnic conflict.

Thus, Bosnia’s ‘House of Peoples’ resembles South Africa’s old tricameral parliament, requiring that delegates from the Federation (one of the two parts of the state) comprise five Croats and five Bosniaks, and delegates from the Republic (the other part of the state) comprise five Serbs. The Presidency of Bosnia, furthermore, consists of three members: a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb.

While I agree that agreeing on certain ‘fundamental’ aspects of democracy and ‘universalising’ them is useful, so that we are better able – as an international community – to identify dictators and pariahs, there is nonetheless room for divergence.

Furthermore, franchise should never be a matter of legislation or regulation. South Africa’s qualified ‘universal franchise’ is found exclusively in the Electoral Act and regulations issued under it, with the only constitutional guidelines being the voting age of 18 and the nice-sounding but undefined principle of ‘universal adult suffrage’.

How South Africa – after decades of gerrymandering and exclusionary practices by political elites – managed to allow Parliament and an executive institution like the Electoral Commission (appointed by the President) to adopt franchise laws and regulations, is baffling.

The full extent of a country’s franchise dispensation must be strictly entrenched and written into the text of its supreme constitution. This is how one (imperfectly) limits political interference and hinders elites from entrenching themselves. The franchise is the most basic ‘rule of the game’ of democracy, and as such must never be changeable by any one player who participates in that game.

Ultimately, the question must never be whether we should have ‘qualified franchise’ or ‘universal franchise’, because such a debate obscures the real issue.

All franchise is qualified.

The question, always, must be this: what are the best and most appropriate qualifications for franchise that we can adopt that would more fully and effectively limit the scope and power of government to interfere with the liberty and property of free individuals?


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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