Fundamentals of Democracy

Fundamentals of Democracy argument for having a second chamber of parliament, elected on a basis different from the first, rests on the desirability of ensuring the fullest consideration of and the widest support for legislation. It is particularly important in a federal system, where the second chamber represent the interests of the member states rather than of the territory considered as a whole. It can also act as useful check on legislation in states without any constitutional guaranteed of individual rights.

Different Elections

Methods of election will normally differ between the two chambers, the upper one being elected indirectly, or on the basis of different constituencies, or over a different timescale so that, say only some members come up for the elections at any  one time.

In a parliamentary system, the simultaneous direct election of the lower chamber by the country as a whole makes it the chief source of popular legitimacy for the government, and gives it the priority in legislation; at most the upper chamber will have a limited delaying or veto power. There is nothing whatsoever to be said for the survival in a democracy of a second chamber that is unelected. 

How Frequently Should Elections Take Place?

The demand of radical democrats in nineteenth-century Europe was of annual elections to parliament, in order to keep effective control over representative. However, the business of modern government and parliament requires a longer period that on year for the effective management of an economy and for the consequences of policies to work through. A four-year cycle’ is not usually accepted as a reasonable compromise between government’s need for continuity on the one hand and the requirement of responsiveness and accountability on the order.

Timing of Elections

Whatever the precise duration of the elected offices, however, it is important that the timing of elections should not rest with the government in power. As will be discussed below, it is a cardinal principal of ‘free and fair’ elections that the electoral process should not be controlled by or gives an affair advantage to the party or parties in office. This requirement should extend to the timing, as well as the conduct, of elections. 

Right to Vote

The usual exclusions operating in most democracies are children, criminals and foreign residents. This is very mixed bag, and different reasons clearly apply for each category. The exclusion of children below a certain age is justified by both common sense and developmental psychology.

Below a certain age most children do not have sufficient experience or sufficient sense of the longer-term consequences of their choices to be treated non-paternalistically. It most societies there is a clustering of rights which right to marry, to own property, to initiate legal proceedings in one’s own person and to vote.

These usually coincide around the age of eighteen, with the latest age for leaving secondary school and the obligation for military service.

Determinate Age Limit

Any fixed age, however, is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. There is evidence that children nowadays mature earlier than in the past. Some rights, for example to earn wages in full-time employment, they attain before eighteen.

And there is regrettable truth in the arguments that some children need protection from the adults who are responsible for them, and that this requires that they be given a say in their lives much earlier.

In any case, maturing is a continuous process, and preparation for a democratic citizenship should involve some participation in collective decision-making in family and school from the earliest age possible.

However, none of these considerations is sufficiently compelling to merit reducing the voting age in public elections significantly below eighteen, or to undermine the symbolic importance of having a particular moment when everyone is recognized by society as attaining the status and rights of adulthood together.

Criminals and the Vote

The argument for debarring criminals serving prison sentences from the vote is that those found guilty of serious offences against the law have forfeited the right to any say in framing it.

On the other side, though, it can be argued that the loss of freedom should not entail the loss of all other rights of citizenship; and that prisoners particularly require accesses t o elected representative to help protect them against illegal or inhuman treatment and conditions.

Resident Aliens

Finally and most contentiously, there is the exclusion of resident aliens. Here the right to vote involves a larger issue: the qualifications emerged from the eighteenth century challenge to the dynastic principal that birth or inheritance was the exclusive basis for political rights, then we cannot with consistency make it the sole criterion of country. How long counts as “settled’ may be a matter of dispute, but five years would be reasonable.