One person, one vote – a flawed and outdated idea?

The recent Australian federal election and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom have prompted a Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic to ask, ‘has the democratic idea of ‘one person, one vote’ passed its use-by date?’

Political philosopher Dr Piero Moraro at the CSU Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) noted that English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) once wrote that educated citizens should be allowed to cast more than one ballot, during elections.

“Mill believed that, given how important political decisions are, the opinion of the well-informed should be deemed more valuable than that of people who know very little, if anything at all, about politics,” said Dr Moraro.

“The notion of ‘one person, one vote’, for Mill, was flawed, and should be replaced by ‘plural voting’.

“Few have taken his view seriously, and rightly so. Many ‘educated’ people appear less politically savvy than the ‘average Joe’. However, the recent referendum in Britain about whether to exit the European Union – known as the ‘Brexit’ referendum or vote – has showed us a different reason to endorse the idea of plural voting.”

Dr Moraro said a demographic analysis of the vote reveals that, throughout the UK, places with many older citizens voted for Brexit, while places with younger voters ticked the ‘Remain’ box.

“But the latter voters, not the former, will bear the consequences of Brexit,” Dr Moraro said. “They are the ones for whom it will be harder to study or work in Europe, to make experiences overseas, to broaden their skills. In a world where they are already ‘locked out’ by their older fellow citizens (for example, in terms of house affordability), they will be disproportionately and negatively affected by Brexit, compared to the thousands of pensioners who endorsed the slogan ‘make Britain great again’ with not much to lose anyway.”

Dr Moraro argues that while Mill was right and the ‘one person, one vote idea’ is flawed, his mistake was to focus on education.

“I believe a more realistic version of plural voting should centre on age,” he said. “Younger people should be allowed more votes, because they have  ̶  at least in a case such as the UK Brexit referendum  ̶  much more at stake than someone who is already retired. Older voters (say those older than 60) should accept that their opinion, though valuable, should be accorded less weight than that of younger citizens, who have more at stake in the specific electoral outcome.

Dr Moraro can understand how people would ask, ‘how can this be fair? What about the idea that ‘everyone should count for one, no more than one’, upon which our democratic identity was built?’

“Though embedded in our culture, that idea has been overstated,” Dr Moraro said. “It is mere commonsense that, when far-reaching decisions are at stake, not everyone counts for one and no more than one. Rather, where you have a lot more at stake than I do, you should have a bigger say than I do.

“Note that there is nothing ‘undemocratic’ in the system I advocate,” he said. “It still gives ‘power to the people’, and the population as a whole is still the one that decides. Every citizen is entitled to vote, thus all opinions are still fed into the final outcome: the vital difference is that, with plural voting, there is more fairness, and this is good news for democrats. In fact, democracy is not about giving each person an equal right to vote: it is about granting everyone an equal chance to fulfil his or her plans in life. The electoral system, as it is designed now, treats people who have had their chances in life, and those who have not yet, identically. And this is intrinsically unfair.”

Dr Moraro concedes that it may be objected that drawing the line at age 60, for example, is too arbitrary, and therefore unjustified.

“It is, indeed, an arbitrary limit, as is the threshold for minimum voting age we have had for many years, with one difference; people under 18 are denied the right to vote, while under plural voting people over 60 would not be disenfranchised,” he said.

“When we talk about democracy, we are talking about an ‘ideal’. The perfect democracy  ̶  where citizens persuade each other through rational exchange, no money is involved, no power inequalities, no private interests  ̶  is a far cry from the reality we live in.

“What we, as democratic citizens, must do is strive to move closer to that ideal. Therefore, we must not be afraid of criticising the ‘one person, one vote’ slogan, which, though embedded in our everyday rhetoric, might make our life less democratic overall.”

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