Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

The ballot is the charter of democracy and the certificate of freedom of the democratic citizen. The voter, in the act of voting, proclaims that he is a civic man, with rights and responsibilities, a legislator, having a voice in the making of the laws by which he is governed. No matter how remote from the conduct of affairs his ordinary walk may be, for the moment he has entered into the halls of state, there to enact for the public destinies. The afflatus of the booth, I might call this high emotion,–but I would not speak mockingly of it, for it is just this emotion (in posse or in actu) which gives to the franchise its power to make men of citizens.

There is, to be sure, much that is farcical in the actual business of voting. I recall well enough my first presidential ballot. A man with bulging eyes and a coarse mustache challenged my vote in a loud mechanical voice. I had never seen the man before, and I became red and angry, for I felt that if he had been a gentleman he would have communicated his intentions to me beforehand, seeing that I was duly registered. However, he turned away with a languid and remote indifference as I swore in my vote. Presently, a sharp-eyed chap from another angle challenged another voter, who turned out, from his confused answers, to be a butcher residing in a neighboring state–temporarily, he said. I noticed my challenger bristle up and insist on the butcher’s voting, for he seemed to be in two minds about the matter. The fact is, it was a close ward, but the man with the bulging eyes and coarse mustache won out.

That was in the days when voting was easy: an eagle or a rooster surmounting a circle for the voter’s cross made the straight ballot plain for all and inevitable for the ignorant, and vastly simplified the party machinery. Since that day I have voted a variety of ballots safeguarded from the ignorant and hopelessly puzzling to the intelligent. Indeed, I have often shivered at the mere thought of the wasted paper as the great blanket sheets were handed out to me. Then to the booth, and I try to catch in my mind some vague clue that will identify for good or ill a few in so great a sea of names. There are various principles of selection open to the voter, after the first few known and deliberate choices have been recorded. There are cards with portraits of the candidates which have been handed you as you entered, and with which the booth is littered; and one can judge something from physiognomy. There is the bruit of a name: you have heard a man roundly abused, and you are sure there must be something in him, good or ill (and candidates assure me that an ill fame is better than none). Indeed, there is the form of the name itself, frequently indicative. I once lived in a town ruled by alien-born citizens, and I made it a principle, after voting such names as appeared to be of American origin, to vote the Irish if the French happened to be the majority of the hour and the French if the Irish were in. Of course it was futile; and in my later life I have adopted the simple rule of voting only for those candidates about whom I happen to have acquired some knowledge.

A few of my acquaintances (“highbrows” mostly) never vote; or, if they do, they are ashamed to acknowledge it. It is not difficult to read their minds–about what must have been in the minds of the white representatives in a freedmen legislature of the Carolina reconstruction. “Law-makers,” they say to themselves, “judges of the public policy, sovereign discoverers of the good!”…and they lift their eyebrows and shrug helplessly. It is an intelligible attitude, and it is without vanity; indeed, it is reasonable if one believe that there are better and worse citizens, and that those are better who are best tutored in the broad affairs of men. But it is an attitude that gets all that makes it reasonable from the fantastical forms which the ballot assumes; not from what the ballot should be, or is in principle.

For it is the ballot–let me repeat–that is to the citizen the certificate of his rights and the token of his responsibilities as a civic man; and these are things too precious to mankind ever to be allowed to suffer diminution. Rather, they should be enlarged and intensified and broadened in the consciousness of every citizen, male and female; for rights and responsibilities are the friends of the state and the true wardens of freedom. But this is not to say that our democracy has perfected the use of the ballot; or, indeed, that the public has yet attained to a clear-eyed perception of the kind of choices it can effectively determine.

The principle of the sound ballot is implicitly present in the attitude of my “highbrow” friends. They justly feel that in a society having such complex needs as our own and provided with such delicate economic and moral instruments for the satisfaction of those needs public policies should be determined and public works administered by the most highly trained and scientific intelligence society possesses. They feel that the statesman should be a man schooled in the history of statesmanship and conversant with the possibilities of human nature; that the directors of commerce should be economists, the controllers of industrial enterprise should be engineers, the officers of sanitation physicians, and that everywhere in society the spirit of science should govern the execution of public affairs. If modern intellectualism be not utterly an illusion, if it have any value for mankind, the definition and satisfaction of the public will–in our age-long search after the good–must surely be its mission.

Obviously such matters should not be left to the hazard of the polls. They are tasks of the intellect, and of intellect very highly trained, and they should be left to the judgment of trained intelligences. The “highbrow,” if he be an engineer or a physician or a lawyer and competent in his profession, is as a matter of fact a more capable judge and deserving of a more telling voice in all matters where mechanics or medicine or law may be made ministers of the public good. Party cries and platforms and campaign arguments are but dreary fustian to men who understand both their own powers and their own limitations, as most scientifically trained men do. It is only to the untrained commoner that they appeal, for the untrained man deems himself to be a judge in all things–and most a judge in public affairs. Clearly he is not so, and clearly he ought not to wield a ballot that makes him appear so, either to himself or to others.

What then is the true function of the ballot, and the principle of a valid suffrage?, Put yourself in the polling booth and ask after the principle governing the choices of which you are least ashamed and I think the answer will be before you. For it is in your choice of men, men of whom through some contact of personality or idea you know the character, that you have best served the state. Your knowledge of policies, your sense of interest, have influenced your choice to an extent, but fundamentally your choice is based upon the feeling that here is a man who may be trusted to preserve the integrity of the state because of his own integrity. Your ballot is a judgment of the candidate’s character; and this is exactly what it should be, for this is the one thing that you are qualified, as a voter, to pass upon.

It is, in fact, the qualification that justifies universal suffrage. Human nature is complex and many-faceted. You and your fellow citizens are showing yourselves to one another constantly, and in a multitude of lights and to multitudes of persons. Not any one of them is a perfect judge of you, nor you of any one of them. But if a man be put up for public judgment, as a candidate is, then his true valuation is pretty certain to be expressed,–not, heaven knows, by the vote he may receive per accidens, but by the group of ballots cast by those who know him in some personal fashion. It may have been but a glimpse of his face, a gesture (I could never vote for the man with the bulging eyes and coarse mustache) it may have been a trifling transaction; it may have been but a public utterance or a portrait; but we human beings are always and instinctively reading men’s characters in their faces and in their demeanors as well as in their deeds; it is the one school in which we are all trained; and the determination of character through a many-voiced judgment, expressing a multitude of impressions, is the true justification of a wide suffrage. A candidate who is judged not only by his business partners and club associates, by his fellow Church members and his underling clerks, but also by his physician, by the Greek who shines his shoes, by the driver who meets his car on the road, indeed, by his wife, and the ladies he encounters at receptions,–such a candidate will be well judged; and he is likely to represent truly the ideal of probity which his community owns.

The fact is that even with our present bunglesome ballot most choices are made on this basis,–from the presidency down. It is the fact of personality that determines political maneuvering,–plastering our walls with portraits, giving car-end orations, and cinemas of the great man’s gestures to audiences that care not a whit for his words. If mere reason were to be our judge of fitness all candidates would be men of the closet, preparing their briefs for the public press that they might be meditated at leisure. But oratory is, and ever will be, the strongest force which a candidate can bring to large groups of voters, not primarily because of the orator’s skill, but because the forms of his expression are revelations of his character. Party platforms–why, the very word “platform” proclaims them to be (what political cynics love to point) but devices for making the rostrum effective,–give the candidate themes upon which to try his skill and show his zeal; but everybody knows that his actions, as an officer, will be determined by the public exigency, not by the plausibility of pre-election forensic.

But if such is the valid principle of suffrage, and if the proper exercise of the ballot is the choice of representative men, how is its proper working to be attained?–for our present methods miss the point woefully. To my mind there is a simple program leading toward this desirable end. The number of elections ought not to be diminished; the number of voters ought to be extended–at least, to include the women. But the number of elective offices should certainly be diminished, so that no officer should be chosen by ballot for a post calling for technical qualification or one in any sense narrowly administrative; such offices should be filled by appointment or through commissioners qualified to elect. Further the terms of office, for commissioners and administrators and perhaps for legislators, should be greatly extended; for rapid rotation of officers is only a confession of political helplessness. Through such devices the short ballot could be secured–ballots so short that at each election every citizen would have a full opportunity to acquire some direct knowledge of all the candidates; and thus insure genuine electoral judgments. Of course, mistakes would be made–the politician hath an art that may deceive even the many; but for this the recall is the proper remedy. The recall is justified by the same arguments that justify the ballot, and it fortifies the strength and meaning of the ballot. Initiative and referendum, it may be remarked, which are so often hitched up with the recall, are condemned by this same argument: they stand, for public choice where the public is not qualified, in the field of ideas and executive politics, not in the choice of the good man.

Of course, there is one policy which the public must decide, and to the right decision of which all democratic training should be directed. This is the ideal of the good life, in society. The administrators of public affairs should be the intellectuals–the experts, who best know how to secure results. But the legislators, in a final sense, must always be men who are judges of the social good, and that means men who are themselves good,–for “the good man is the measure of everything,” as Aristotle wisely said. But how else, save through electoral selection, is the good man to be found? Indeed, one may truly say that the whole art of democratic government is the pragmatic definition of the good through the choice of representative men. None of these men–not a Washington, not a Lincoln,–will be perfect, or be the embodiment of the perfect citizen; but the perfect citizen will gradually be defined to all citizens–as the ideal American is now partially defined by Washington and Lincoln–through this process of selection. And to what other end does a state exist?