Universal Suffrage

During my time at the Institute of Culture & Creation Spirituality, CA, we did an exercise in liberation: from a mixed group the teacher invited those in a certain category to walk forward and then gave the instruction, “look who’s with you; look who’s not with you”. All the colours of the gender and sexuality rainbow, all the shades of skin colour, the abled and disabled, the haves and the have nots…and those who had been incarcerated and those who had never known that restriction on freedom. The point of the exercise was to show that oppression takes many forms and some suffer multiple burdens (there were some in the class that got a lot of exercise that afternoon) while others are comparatively privileged (many barely moved).

The point about prison is that, in theory, convicts bring it upon themselves. We all know that, in practice, that ain’t necessarily so. However, even if we ignore all prisoners of conscience, all prisoners of war, all hostages, all the disappeared, all the innocent locked up for the crimes of others, taking the rap willingly or not, we still have the question of the limitation of universal suffrage. What are the criteria by which we as a society judge that someone is eligible to vote in a local or general election or referendum? And how are those criteria defensible?

An online timeline states, for 1928, “Effectively all women and men over 21 now have the vote” and the next page enthusiastically charts the struggles over class and gender eligibility and triumphantly states: “eventually all women and men gained the vote, but it took over a century of energetic campaigning.”

In fact there are several restricted categories, for a general election (I paraphrase):

  • Members of the House of Lords;
  • Citizens of the EU (excluding Ireland, Cyprus & Malta) resident in the UK;
  • Non-British and non-qualifying Commonwealth citizens;
  • Persons convicted of criminal offenses (not civil offenses and not on remand);
  • Those guilty in the last 5 years of corrupt/ illegal practices in connection with an election.
  • Those under 18 years of age.

The common law restriction on grounds of mental incapacity has been abolished (although the bar to anyone acting as proxy to someone incapable of electing a proxy stands).

There is an ancient example of an attempt at restriction from Greek myth.

There is Olympian concern for humankind who now have fire (from Prometheus) but lack the art of war (to defend themselves from wild beasts) which is a part of the science of politics  – comprised of the virtues of justice and respect – which has not been given them. Zeus dispatches Hermes, who asks:

“Shall I distribute them as the arts were distributed – that is, on the principle that one trained doctor suffices for many laymen, and so with the other experts? Shall I distribute justice and respect for their fellows in this way, or to all alike?” “To all” said Zeus. “Let all have their share. There could never be cities if only a few shared in these virtues, as in the arts.”

(Protagoras 322c-d, in Guthrie/1982/54)[1]

So even though the Classical Greeks some centuries after Homer did not practice universal suffrage, they respected the value of this foundational cultural myth in recognising the sense of citizenship as universal and as a divine gift – at least enough to quote it.

Nowadays we appear to feel ourselves wiser than our philosophical ancestors. We judge that someone who has broken the law is not eligible to decide who should make the law. This concept of eligibility is confused. A person who lacks the capacity to understand the law is not a criminal. A criminal (being of sound mind and understanding the difference between what is legal and illegal – a difference not the same as that between right and wrong) chooses to break the law. That is a choice, the older word for choice being ‘election’.

In another cultural foundation story, that of the Garden of Eden, choice is the first gift given after life itself. The story tells of our ancestors making the wrong choice but it does not go on to say that the gift of choice (between right and wrong – and later between obeying and breaking the law) was revoked.

Greek and Hebrew cultural wisdom concurs in valuing the exercise of human choice, whatever that choice may be.

Why do we consider ourselves wiser than our cultural ancestors? Is this not the great sin of hubris to refuse their inspiration? Is it not our duty to rail against our unjust penitentiary system which appears to disproportionally convict and reconvict people on the basis of their race and class and literacy and convenience to big business rather than on right and wrong? Are we right to continue, (all of us citizen voters and all the Lords too, by commission or omission) to disenfranchise the very demographic that might have the most poignant plea for more humanity in our uncaring society? Are even the most hardened of convicts not capable of canny choice of the next government who will make and unmake laws to rule those they love? Hellenophiles may consider that Socrates himself was once a prisoner, considered criminal. Jews have so many kin to commemorate that were not considered POWs but criminals . Even hardened Tory Christians may recall that Christ himself was a convict.

I have been in a cell in what archaeologists are almost certain are the ruins of the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate. It’s impossible to stand upright inside. I have visited convicts in modern prisons. How do we enable them to be upright citizens if we continue to refuse them this dignity divinely given and one which they may use with devastating effect to right the wrongs of the sick society that put them away? Or is for reason of that fear that we continue to keep them in their restricted position?

When you next walk into a polling station, ask yourself these questions:

Who’s with you?

Who’s not with you?


rusty-padlock-and-chainRusty Padlock and Chain photo by Alex Borland in Public Domain

[1] Protagoras and Meno (trans. W.K.C.Guthrie) Penguin, Middlesex, UK. The original Greek is non-gender specific and refers to ‘all’ and to ‘people’ not just to ‘men’.


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