"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘voting’

More of Chesterton on voting

With primary season going into full swing, it seems time to let Chesterton speak on the topic of voting once again.  This particular passage comes from his last novel, The Return of Don Quixote.  The backstory is thus.  Michael Herne is a librarian and historian who orignally studied the ancient Hitties, but has recently decided to focus on the Middle Ages.  So fascinated is he by this historical era that he decided to dress in medieval fashion permanently and create a little band of followers who seek to restore the habits and ideals of the late Middle Ages.  At the same time, political machinations involving big industry and socialist agitators are swirling around.  Then election day arrives.

In the great General Election, which had been produced by the big menace of Braintree and his new Syndicalism, and which had led up to the launching of the movement in opposition to it, it was reported that Mr. Michael Herne had gone into a polling-booth to record his vote; and had remained there for three-quarters of an hour, mysteriously occupied or possibly engaged in prayer.  He had apparently never given a vote before; it not being a Palaeo-Hittite habit; but when it had been elaborately explained to him that he had only to make a cross on the piece of paper opposite the name of his favourite candidate, he seemed quite charmed and enchanted with the idea.  By this time, of course, his Palaeo-Hittite period had long become prehistoric and stratified in the past; and his later medieval enthusiasm devoured his days and nights.  Nevertheless he could apparently spare a somewhat abnormal time for the modern and rather mechanical process of voting; when he might have been engaged in drawing the long bow or tilting at a Saracen’s head.  Archer and his other colleagues became a little impatient, and not a little mystified, by his mysterious immersion in the ballot box; they kicked their legs restlessly outside and eventually went inside, to see his tall and motionless back still immovable in its separate cell, as of a modern confessional.  They were at last goaded to the gross indelicacy of disturbing the Citizen when alone with his Duty, by going up behind him and pulling his coat-tails.  As this had no particular effect, they committed the anarchical and anti-democratic outrage of actually looking over his shoulder.  They found that he had set out on the little shelf, as on a table, all the illumination paints (presumably borrowed from Miss Ashley), paints of gold and silver and all the colours of the rainbow.  With these he was engaged in doing his democratic duty with almost a painful care and patience.  He had been told to make a cross and he was making a cross.  He was doing it as it would have been done by a monk in the Dark Ages; that is in very gay and glorified colours.  The cross was of gold, in one corner of it were three blue birds, in another corner were three red fishes, in another plants, in another planets and so on; it seemed to be planned upon the scheme of the Canticle of the Creature of St. Francis of Assisi.  He was very much surprised to be told that this was not required by the provisions of the Ballot Act; but he controlled himself and only gave a faint sigh, when informed by the officials of the polling station that his vote was cancelled, because he had “spoilt” a ballot paper.

Your Chesterton comes early this week.

Today is election day.  I’ll be voting for a state delegate, a sheriff, and perhaps some sort of judge.  Chesterton also lived through some elections.  Apparently the process in England a century ago was somewhat different.  Instead of lining up at polling places, they had canvassers who went around and collected the ballots at people’s houses.  Nevertheless the outcomes seemed to be the more or less same.  Here are his thoughts on the topic.

Most of us will be canvassed soon, I suppose; some of us may even canvass. Upon which side, of course, nothing will induce me to state, beyond saying that by a remarkable coincidence it will in every case be the only side in which a high-minded, public-spirited, and patriotic citizen can take even a momentary interest. But the general question of canvassing itself, being a non-party question, is one which we may be permitted to approach. The rules for canvassers are fairly familiar to any one who has ever canvassed. They are printed on the little card which you carry about with you and lose. There is a statement, I think, that you must not offer a voter food or drink. However hospitable you may feel towards him in his own house, you must not carry his lunch about with you. You must not produce a veal cutlet from your tail-coat pocket. You must not conceal poached eggs about your person. You must not, like a kind of conjurer, produce baked potatoes from your hat. In short, the canvasser must not feed the voter in any way. Whether the voter is allowed to feed the canvasser, whether the voter may give the canvasser veal cutlets and baked potatoes, is a point of law on which I have never been able to inform myself. When I found myself canvassing a gentleman, I have sometimes felt tempted to ask him if there was any rule against his giving me food and drink; but the matter seemed a delicate one to approach. His attitude to me also sometimes suggested a doubt as to whether he would, even if he could. But there are voters who might find it worth while to discover if there is any law against bribing a canvasser. They might bribe him to go away.

The second veto for canvassers which was printed on the little card said that you must not persuade any one to impersonate a voter. I have no idea what it means. To dress up as an average voter seems a little vague. There is no well-recognised uniform, as far as I know, with civic waistcoat and patriotic whiskers. The enterprise resolves itself into one somewhat similar to the enterprise of a rich friend of mine who went to a fancy-dress ball dressed up as a gentleman. Perhaps it means that there is a practice of personating some individual voter. The canvasser creeps to the house of his fellow-conspirator carrying a make-up in a bag. He produces from it a pair of white moustaches and a single eyeglass, which are sufficient to give the most common-place person a startling resemblance to the Colonel at No. 80. Or he hurriedly affixes to his friend that large nose and that bald head which are all that is essential to an illusion of the presence of Professor Budger. I do not undertake to unravel these knots. I can only say that when I was a canvasser I was told by the little card, with every circumstance of seriousness and authority, that I was not to persuade anybody to impersonate a voter: and I can lay my hand upon my heart and affirm that I never did.

The third injunction on the card was one which seemed to me, if interpreted exactly and according to its words, to undermine the very foundations of our politics. It told me that I must not “threaten a voter with any consequence whatever.” No doubt this was intended to apply to threats of a personal and illegitimate character; as, for instance, if a wealthy candidate were to threaten to raise all the rents, or to put up a statue of himself. But as verbally and grammatically expressed, it certainly would cover those general threats of disaster to the whole community which are the main matter of political discussion. When a canvasser says that if the opposition candidate gets in the country will be ruined, he is threatening the voters with certain consequences. When the Free Trader says that if Tariffs are adopted the people in Brompton or Bayswater will crawl about eating grass, he is threatening them with consequences. When the Tariff Reformer says that if Free Trade exists for another year St. Paul’s Cathedral will be a ruin and Ludgate Hill as deserted as Stonehenge, he is also threatening. And what is the good of being a Tariff Reformer if you can’t say that? What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems. But these things are, after all, consequences, so to speak.

– G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered

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