“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” So said Madison famously, in Federalist 51. He continued with a more significant observation: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Underlying this observation was his recognition that political science could not count on politicians always acting virtuously. Yet Madison also knew that if politicians lacked virtue altogether, democracy (or what he would have called “republicanism”) would be impossible. Here’s how he put this important counterpoint in Federalist 55:
“Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Thus, Madison saw the challenge of successful constitutional design for a democracy as economizing upon an existent but finite supply of virtue among otherwise self-interested politicians. To this end, he gave us the architectural principles of federalism and separation of powers. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”—so that no single institution of government, even in a democracy, can exercise too much power over the lives of the citizenry. Yet, as I read recent news reports of efforts in Florida to purge the state’s voter rolls of noncitizens, I wonder if Madison’s principles of constitutional design are adequate to the task of election administration in the twenty-first century. Or perhaps the better question is whether the current institutional arrangements we use in the United States for election administration are adequately in accord with Madison’s fundamental principles of constitutional design.
According to the New York Times, a rift occurred between two top Republicans in Florida over what means to use in an effort to remove noncitizens from the state’s voting rolls:
“Gov. Rick Scott began to push for the voter roll review last year. He asked former Secretary of State Kurt Browning [a gubernatorial appointee] to try to identify noncitizen voters on the rolls, Mr. Browning told The Associated Press. But Mr. Browning found that using the state’s driver’s license database did not provide accurate results. Lacking confidence in the search, Mr. Browning resigned early this year.”
As the article explains, Governor Scott replaced Browning with Ken Detzner, who has been willing to employ the disputed method for scrubbing the voter rolls. Many observers believe that this willingness is motivated, at least in part, by a partisan desire to tilt the electoral playing field to the advantage of Republicans. What to make of Browning’s resignation and replacement from a Madisonian perspective, assuming the Times story is accurate? Browning’s refusal to go along with a dubious method of voter purging in order to achieve a partisan advantage would seem like the kind of honorable political act of virtue that Madison recognizes to be in short supply—and thus should be taken advantage of in the workings of self-government whenever it surfaces. Yet Browning’s resignation could been seen as entirely ineffectual, and hence its virtue utterly wasted, since Governor Scott was able to easily find another loyal partisan to implement the questionable purge.