Universal suffrage is something Western civilization takes as a given. It hasn't always been that way, of course, as access to the franchise has been qualified across time and space. Today, however, most Western countries have universal suffrage for their adult citizens. English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, has some interesting thoughts about who should vote. Some of those thoughts are found in the four selections below.
August Glen-James, editor
It would be eminently desirable that other things besides reading, writing and arithmetic could be made necessary to the suffrage; that some knowledge of the conformation of the earth, its natural and political divisions, the elements of general history and of the history and institutions of their own country, could be required from all electors. . .
(1) [I]t as wholly inadmissible that any person should participate in the suffrage without being able to read, write, and I will add, perform the common operations of arithmetic. . . . people would no more think of giving the suffrage to a man who could not read, than of giving it to a child who could not speak; and it would not be society that would exclude him, but his own laziness. When society has not performed its duty, by rendering this amount of instruction accessible to all, there is some hardship in the case, but this is a hardship that ought to be borne. . . . No one will maintain that power over others, over the whole community, should be imparted to people who have not acquired the commonest and most essential requisites for taking care of themselves. . . . It would be eminently desirable that other things besides reading, writing and arithmetic could be made necessary to the suffrage; that some knowledge of the conformation of the earth, its natural and political divisions, the elements of general history and of the history and institutions of their own country, could be required from all electors. . . . [A]fter a few years it would exclude none but those who cared so little for the privilege, that their vote, if given, would not in general be an indication of any real political opinion.
(2) It is also important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize. As far as money matters are concerned, any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government; . . . It amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people’s pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one . . . [as for] indirect taxes. . . . this mode of defraying a share of the public expenses is hardly felt: the payer, unless a person of education and reflection, does not identify his interest with a low scale of public expenditure as closely as when money for its support is demanded directly from himself; . . . It would be better that a direct tax, in the simple form of a capitation, should be levied on every grown person in the community; or that every such person should be admitted an elector on allowing himself to be rated extra ordiem [sic . . . extra ordinem?*] to the assessed taxes; or that a small annual payment, rising and falling with the gross expenditure of the country, should be required from every registered elector; that so everyone might feel that the money which he assisted in voting was partly his own, and that he was interested in keeping down its amount.
(3) I regard it as required by first principles, that the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise. He who cannot by his labour suffice for his own support has no claim to the privilege of helping himself to the money of others. By becoming dependent on the remaining members of the community for actual subsistence, he abdicates his claim to equal rights with them in other respects. Those to whom he is indebted for the continuance of his very existence may justly claim the exclusive management of those common concerns, to which he now brings nothing, or less than he takes away. As a condition of the franchise, a term should be fixed, say five years previous to the registry, during which the applicant’s name has not been on the parish books as a recipient of relief.
(4) To be certified bankrupt, or to have taken the benefit of the Insolvent Act should disqualify for the franchise until the person has paid his debts or at least proved that he is not now, and has not for some long period been, dependent on eleemosynary support. . . . It is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge. . . . Men, as well as women, do not need political rights in order that they may govern, but in order that they may not be misgoverned.
*From Roman law: a type of action alleging a debt without specifying the precise basis of the claim.
John S. Mill, Representative Government, in Great Books of the Western World, Maynard Hutchins, ed. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, IL: 1952), vol. 43, pp. 382-83 as quoted in Kennedy and Kennedy, The South Was Right, Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, 2006, 252-255