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III. – THE ABOLITION OF CANVASSING AT
PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS : WITH A
means of replenishing their exchequer, of asserting their importance, of bringing themselves before the public, or of laying the candidate or their party under obligation to them, few persons in these days would venture to say a word in favour of the practice. I shall, therefore, devote but a short space to discussing the advisability of abolishing it, merely giving a résumé of some of the principal reasons for its abolition. These may be stated thus :
Canvassing places upon candidates an unnecessary, disagreeable, and heavy task, subjecting them to much unpleasantness, and even to insult.
It occasions great waste of time—sometimes extending to several weeks-on the part of hundreds of canvassers; and places them in an undesirable relation both to the candidate and to the electors.
It is a great annoyance and inconvenience to electorsis too often a direct attack upon, and very detrimental to, their veracity; and, accordingly, has a most demoralising effect.
It is the means of inducing to vote, when otherwise they would not, the utterly indifferent and the grossly ignorant, those who vote, not from conviction, but from some selfish motive, and who, by abstaining from voting at all, would serve their country in the only way in which, perhaps, they are capable of serving it. And when these are sufficient to turn an election, behold the constituents of the member!
It considerably increases the expenses of elections; and is often a mere indirect form of bribery. Mr. Hankey
(Times, 23rd April, 1880, p. II, col. 4), computes the saving that the abolition of canvassing would effect at nearly one and a half millions.
It opens a door to the easy accomplishment, combined with difficulty of detection, of bribery and intimidation, which it is in vain to attempt to deal with as ends whilst the means are permitted.
It is a direct infringement of, and entirely antagonistic to, the spirit of the ballot, as well as of individual liberty. To give a man the means of voting secretly, whilst you leave him exposed to influence before and after; whilst you suffer him to to be bound by his word to do, and to be subject to any amount of inquiry and pressure as to his actions afterwards, is to trifle with him ; to wink at untruth, insincerity, and promise-breaking—detrimental to all good government-and to perpetuate evils, which, by the unthinking, are attributed to the ballot, but which are really the effect of that half-heartedness which prefers to ameliorate an evil rather than undertake to cleanse the Augean stable. It has been well said by the writer already quoted (Times, loc. cit.): "It were better to put an end to the Ballot Act than to countenance the system of canvassing" under it.
It is either useless or injurious. If a voter has sufficient interest in his country's welfare, and sufficient intelligence to render his vote of value to his country, he needs no canvassing to urge him to do that duty to it which is his pleasure—with such an one canvassing is useless. If, on the other hand, he is wanting in the adequate interest and intelligence, and requires the suggestive money present, the festive gathering, the seductive recognition, the persuasive flattery, or any other means of inducement, which leaves his opinions unformed or unchanged, his vote is an injury to his fellow-electors and to his country, and in this case canvassing is distinctly injurious.
Under the Ballot, canvassing is for the most part ineffectual, i.e., its advantage as a guide to the probable result of the poll, if not entirely lost, is so diminished as to be of little practical value. Where effectual, its result is unofficially to antedate the election as officially fixed.
It is the occasion of many unauthorised promises being made and pledges taken on behalf of candidates, which they are subsequently either unable or unwilling to redeem.
To abolish canvassing would be :
To strike at the roots of wire-pulling and of all the evils that result from the “caucus" and its kindred.
To regulate elections by opinion and principle, instead of by objectionable and sinister influences, be they what they may.
To bring into office ability instead of plutocracy, the upright rather than the schemer, the orator before the successful suitor.
To make it the interest of candidates to educate politically their constituents, rather than to worry them like sheep or coax them like dullards.
To raise the standard of the electors in all matters pertaining to government, and in turn to raise the standard of members.
To induce men to come forward who now will not stoop to conquer at the sacrifice of their moral dignity.
To make it the business of constituents to choose a candidate instead of candidates choosing a constituency.
In short, to exterminate all the evils which attend the present practice. This enumeration of the evils to be remedied and of the advantages which would result therefrom may suffice, it is hoped, to convince anyone who has the national progress at heart, that the task is worth attempting.
It may be well, however, to set forth some proofs of the practicability of abolition. In point of fact, the chief, if not
the only, argument in favour of the present state of affairs is that old bugbear which always, in the absence of reasons, does duty for them, when any change is proposed—“it is impracticable.” But why should it be impracticable? The mere allegation of impracticability, which weed-like springs up always and everywhere, is begging the question.
Are there no acts which constitute canvassing? Or is the English language so poor that words cannot be found to represent them? Or are they solely mental acts, purely subjective, which, lacking all objective manifestation, defy detection ? Or are they so advantageous that no legal motives can be found sufficiently strong to counteract them ? In other words, is the good which a man derives from so acting greater than all the evils which are practically at the disposal of the Legislature ? Will someone be found bold enough to undertake to prove the affirmative to any one of these questions? If not, how can abolition be impracticable ? Difficult it may be ; but difficulties may be, and continually are, overcome; they should rather incite than deter. "Mountains may be removed by earthquakes,” I venture to affirm that the difficulty in dealing with bribery, treating, and undue influence in conjunction with canvassing, will be found far less than in dealing with them alone-i.e., so long as canvassing, the stepping-stone to them all, is permitted.
The best answer to the objection of impracticability appears to me to be to show how it can, as a matter of fact, be met. I have, therefore, drafted a short Bill, which I venture to submit, as calculated to effect the desired object. It is for those who believe in the impossibility of attaining that object, to show not merely wherein the bill is defective, but that the defects are irremediable. I cannot, of course, hope, much less expect, that my scheme should be free from important defects. But all my case requires is that such defects should admit of a remedy. Let others better
qualified than myself apply it. If it should be held that I have in any way, however slight, offered some feasible suggestions for the successful grappling with this difficulty, how much more readily may it be conceived to be within the grasp of the collective wisdom of Parliament ?
In the Bill, I have endeavoured to answer effectually the questions suggested above. In clause 4 I attempt to define canvassing by an exhaustive enumeration of the acts which constitute it. This is probably the most difficult part of the task, and it is this part of the Bill that most needs attention and criticism. It would have been far easier to have declared canvassing abolished ; but that seemed to be to shirk the question—to impose upon the Courts the proper work of the Legislature.
The point from which I have attacked canvassing, is not from what the person canvassed does, for there may be canvassing without the action canvassed for being consummated; nor yet merely from what the canvasser does, for then it were difficult to distinguish acts that do not require to be prohibited from those that do, and it is from this point of view that those who cry impracticable always regard it. Take, for instance, this statement by Mr. Agar-Ellis (Times, 22nd April, 1880, p. 12, col. 4), that “public speaking is simply a collective canvass !" It is from what the canvasser requires the canvassed to do that I have endeavoured to grapple with the difficulty. The whole principle consists in this, that whilst, on the one hand, a voter shall not be prevented from voluntarily promising his vote, or stating for whom he intends to vote, being left perfectly free to do so or not, just as he pleases; on the other hand, no one shall be allowed to interfere with that freedom in the smallest degree, as by asking him to promise, which promise, should it comprise no further influence, may yet prevent him changing his course of action, should he be