Monday, November 05, 2012

Plural Voting

Next week the Mill seminar that I've been running this semester reaches Considerations on Representative Government (included in Gray's On Liberty and Other Essays, which is the set text for my course). Anyone with passing familiarity with this work will know that one of Mill's most (in)famous recommendations is a system of plural voting, according to which the poor and uneducated (although not those living on welfare benefits or the illiterate) would get one vote, but other more educated citizens would get more than one vote.

This idea generally strikes students as repulsive - correctly so, perhaps - but one point I try to stress is that, at Mill's time, this was a progressive proposal. In other words, he was not advocating taking away anyone's vote (as a proposal with the same content would today), but extending the vote. He wanted to give the less educated some power, which seems a clear improvement on none. (Though I can see why someone firmly committed to political equality might think it better not to go down this road.)

This Wikipedia entry is remarkably interesting though. It was not until the 1948 Representation of the People Act (first applied in the 1950 general election) that the UK abolished plural voting. Belgium also practised plural voting, something like what Mill proposed, between 1894 and 1919, apparently to limit the impact of universal suffrage. In practice, universal unequal suffrage may be a stepping stone towards universal equal suffrage, rather than a step away from it.


  1. "In other words, he was not advocating taking away anyone's vote..."

    Yes, he was. Lots of plural voters in Mill's day would have lost their plural votes, had his scheme been enacted.

  2. I meant he wasn't out to take the vote (as in a right to vote) from anyone who had it, as distinct from taking a vote (or votes) from some plural voters. Though I concede that even that claim may be contentious: I suppose his requirements, such as a literacy and numeracy test, may have disenfranchised some who were enfranchised at the time.