How important a right is vote?

Professor Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University, in an article looking at decreased turnout in general elections, characterised the franchise (vote) as the “most fundamental of citizenship rights”.

Liam Hehir at Stuff: Voting is important, but is it more important than other civil rights?

I’m not sure that’s quite right.

Imagine that you had to choose one of the following sets of rights to be stripped away from you:

  • The right to hold property secure from unjust government confiscation.
  • The right to choose your own career and to not be compelled to work against your will.
  • The right to live where you want, use public spaces and travel freely along the roads.
  • The right to be free from arbitrary arrest and to have the protections of proper criminal procedure.
  • The right to have one 2.5-millionth of an indirect say in the selection of the prime minister once every three years.

Some sort of universal voting rights are important in a modern democracy but how important?

A universal franchise is a recent thing. International history:

The Magna Carta is rightly seen as an important development for our liberal political life. And yet while it covered taxation, access to forests, the right to trial by jury and the protection of other customary liberties, there is nothing in it about electing the Government.

The same goes for the Petition of Right in 1628 and the Bill of Rights 1688. Both of these set out all kinds of rights that were considered essential liberties. Like the Magna Carta, these laws are considered so fundamental that they remain in force under New Zealand law to this day. But they don’t say anything about a guaranteed franchise.

Over time, these privileges accumulated into an informal body of rights that the legal scholar William Blackstone called “the Fundamental Laws of England”. In pre-independence America, they often went by the name “the Rights of Englishmen”. When colonial Americans felt these rights were being infringed, they declared independence.

By this time, the idea of rule with the consent of the governed was gaining ground. But it is easy to overstate just how much the American Revolution was really about democracy. For many of the Founding Fathers, the very word was synonymous with “mob rule” – something to be feared. It is no coincidence that the US constitution, despite its elaborate checks and balances, enshrines no explicit right to vote.

New Zealand history:

When this country was founded in 1840, the inhabitants were promised all the rights of British subjects. But that promise did not extend to any guaranteed voting rights, because British subjects did not enjoy such rights.

Indeed, it was not until 1853 that we had our first general election.

Even then, the franchise was limited to non-imprisoned men over the age of 21  owning a certain amount of property.

From NZ History: Political and constitutional timeline

Now in the 21st century, with reducing voter turnout, an increasing number of people seem to not think much of their right to vote.

How important is voting?