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Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process

Electoral Insight – January  2001

the right to vote: the heart of democracy

Manon Tremblay
Associate Professor and Director, Research Centre on Women and Politics, University of Ottawa

Text from the introductory report written by Manon Tremblay, sponsored and submitted by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada for the third preparatory meeting on electoral issues (Paris, April 2000), leading up to the symposium on democratic practices, rights and freedoms in la Francophonie (Bamako, Mali, November 2000).

An advance poll at the 1997  federal general election.

Our contemporary ritual of choosing representatives of the people by universal suffrage seems a product of the modern age. In fact, however, it is part of a historical, philosophical and sociological process that has taken us from a rationale of exclusion to the imperative of inclusion. The right to vote is inextricably linked to the building of democracy and the affirmation of freedom and equality.

The history of political thought from the Reformation to the philosophies of the Enlightenment is a history of spiritual enfranchisement. Previously, the individual's existence was subject to certain supernatural forces such as God over which one had no control. The Enlightenment philosophies and the great revolutions that followed enshrined freedom as an innate characteristic of the human being. The individual is free by nature, and nothing may hamper that freedom, not even the power of the state. To preserve one's freedom, the individual must adjust the political function so that it serves, rather than enslaves. This is Rousseau's Social Contract, whereby every individual holds a portion of power and the Law derives its legitimacy from universal participation in its definition. By associating the governed with the exercise of power, government wins the support of all those subject to it, as it preserves and, indeed, brings about their freedom. The means whereby the governed agree to delegate their authority is the franchise, which is, therefore, the link between the legitimacy of political governance and the liberty of human beings.

But in the late 18th century, this freedom, so dear to liberal political philosophy, did not apply to the many: it was the privilege of the few, who were usually nobles and landowners. The democracy of that time was, therefore, a democracy of exclusion. With all it brought in the way of suffering for the "ordinary people," the Industrial Revolution taught that, while freedom may belong to all, not everyone has the power to exercise it; the conditions have to be right for this to take place. Those conditions are to be sought in the equality that offers each person the capacity to exercise power. At this point, freedom is no longer seen as intrinsic to the human being; it is something acquired, and what is more, something to be won. So the right to vote is no longer seen as the instrument for preserving some innate human freedom, but as the means of realizing real freedom, by making all people equal. From this standpoint, democracy aims to include the greatest number in governance; in the 19th century, some thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, even argued for the expansion of the franchise to women. It is this concern for equality that was to drive the great campaigns to win universal suffrage: equal capacity to participate in the designation of those who governed became an innate value of the human being, regardless of education, occupation, family connections or wealth.

In short, universal suffrage was one of the few tools available to societies to reconcile two values that have had a rather contradictory historical and philosophical past: freedom and equality. Freedom, because not only must each person be able to exercise freely the right to vote and choose representatives, but choosing them through universal suffrage is a guarantee that democratic freedoms will be protected. Equality, because everyone has the right to vote for representatives and everyone has intrinsically equal value in this process that leads to democratic legitimacy.

Political representation follows from the right to vote. In The Spirit of the Law, Montesquieu lays the foundations for the theoretical and legal articulation of laws: through the vote, the people participate in a process of designating representatives, rather than completely surrendering their power. The issue of the relationship between the governors and the governed then arises: in what ways will the former act in the place of the latter, and what is the role of the governed in the making of public decisions? An initial response lies in direct democracy, where the people are the main players in political representation and their joint will crystallizes the sovereignty of the nation. A second response is based instead on the notion of representative democracy, in which the people delegate to a third party the exercise of their sovereignty, this delegation being more or less pronounced, depending on the terms of the social contract. It is the electoral processes that effect this passage of authority from the people to the governors. These arrangements are at the heart of democracy, forming the leaven of legitimacy in political governance, which cannot do without the confidence of the people. In other words, democracy partakes of the rule of law, in that it exists within a state that is subject to the law as developed by the democratically elected representatives of the people, and a state that is careful to respect the integrity and inviolability of human beings.

In practice, democracy today is based on certain institutions that guarantee the rule of law. The various parameters of a democratic state include respect for human rights, a representative system, the division of power, political pluralism (in particular, a multi-party system and a legitimate opposition) and alternation of political power, free elections and reliable electoral processes. A reliable electoral process implies recognizing as fundamental rights of the citizen the right to vote and the right to stand as a candidate, which, moreover, are equal for all citizens. This also presupposes universal and secret suffrage, freely exercised by the citizens. In addition, a reliable electoral process is one that plans regular, transparent elections, featuring a plurality of parties that enjoy certain advantages, such as freedom of expression; it has rules for organizing the popular consultation from start to finish; it prescribes certain structures for managing electoral operations and for independent adjudication that issues authoritative decisions. The manner in which elections are held is indicative of the quality of democratic life within a state.

Electoral participation and legislative representation are the direct consequences of universal suffrage: it is by exercising their right to vote in free, multi-party, transparent elections that the people transfer their sovereign authority to a limited group of representatives. High election turnout and equitable representation of the will of the people are indispensable for generating confidence among the people in their governors; without this no democratic governance is possible.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.