Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1

[Volume 2, Page 266]

Document 16

Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention

4--5, 9 , 14 June 1788Elliot 3:9--11, 60, 175--76, 366--67

[4 June]

Mr. Nicholas. There is another objection which has been echoed from one end of the continent to the other--that Congress may alter the time, place, and manner of holding elections; that they may direct the place of elections to be where it will be impossible for those who have a right to vote, to attend; for instance, that they may order the freeholders of Albemarle to vote in the county of Princess Anne, or vice versa; or regulate elections, otherwise, in such a manner as totally to defeat their purpose, and lay them entirely under the influence of Congress. I flatter myself, that, from an attentive consideration of this power, it will clearly appear that it was essentially necessary to give it to Congress, as, without it, there could have been no security for the general government against the state legislatures. What, Mr. Chairman, is the danger apprehended in this case? If I understand it right, it must be, that Congress might cause the elections to be held in the most inconvenient places, and at so inconvenient a time, and in [Volume 2, Page 267] such a manner, as to give them the most undue influence over the choice, nay, even to prevent the elections from being held at all,--in order to perpetuate themselves. But what would be the consequence of this measure? It would be this, sir,--that Congress would cease to exist; it would destroy the Congress itself; it would absolutely be an act of suicide; and therefore it can never be expected. This alteration, so much apprehended, must be made by law; that is, with the concurrence of both branches of the legislature. Will the House of Representatives, the members of which are chosen only for two years, and who depend on the people for their reëlection, agree to such an alteration? It is unreasonable to suppose it.

But let us admit, for a moment, that they will: what would be the consequence of passing such a law? It would be, sir, that, after the expiration of the two years, at the next election they would either choose such men as would alter the law, or they would resist the government. An enlightened people will never suffer what was established for their security to be perverted to an act of tyranny. It may be said, perhaps, that resistance would then become vain; Congress are vested with the power of raising an army; to which I say, that if ever Congress shall have an army sufficient for their purpose, and disposed to execute their unlawful commands, before they would act under this disguise, they would pull off the mask, and declare themselves absolute. I ask, Mr. Chairman, is it a novelty in our government? Has not our state legislature the power of fixing the time, places, and manner of holding elections? The possible abuse here complained of never can happen as long as the people of the United States are virtuous. As long as they continue to have sentiments of freedom and independence, should the Congress be wicked enough to harbor so absurd an idea as this objection supposes, the people will defeat their attempt by choosing other representatives, who will alter the law. If the state legislature, by accident, design, or any other cause, would not appoint a place for holding elections, then there might be no election till the time was past for which they were to have been chosen; and as this would eventually put an end to the Union, it ought to be guarded against; and it could only be guarded against by giving this discretionary power, to the Congress, of altering the time, place, and manner of holding the elections. It is absurd to think that Congress will exert this power, or change the time, place, and manner established by the states, if the states will regulate them properly, or so as not to defeat the purposes of the Union. It is urged that the state legislature ought to be fully and exclusively possessed of this power. Were this the case, it might certainly defeat the government. As the powers vested by this plan in Congress are taken from the state legislatures, they would be prompted to throw every obstacle in the way of the general government. It was then necessary that Congress should have this power.

Another strong argument for the necessity of this power is, that, if it was left solely to the states, there might have been as many times of choosing as there are states. States having solely the power of altering or establishing the time of election, it might happen that there should be no Congress. Not only by omitting to fix a time, but also by the elections in the states being at thirteen different times, such intervals might elapse between the first and last election, as to prevent there being a sufficient number to form a house; and this might happen at a time when the most urgent business rendered their session necessary; and by this power, this great part of the representation will be always kept full, which will be a security for a due attention to the interest of the community; and also the power of Congress to make the times of elections uniform in all the states, will destroy the continuance of any cabal, as the whole body of representatives will go out of office at once.

[5 June]

Mr. Henry. What can be more defective than the clause concerning the elections? The control given to Congress over the time, place, and manner of holding elections, will totally destroy the end of suffrage. The elections may be held at one place, and the most inconvenient in the state; or they may be at remote distances from those who have a right of suffrage: hence nine out of ten must either not vote at all, or vote for strangers; for the most influential characters will be applied to, to know who are the most proper to be chosen. I repeat, that the control of Congress over the manner, &c., of electing, well warrants this idea. The natural consequence will be, that this democratic branch will possess none of the public confidence; the people will be prejudiced against representatives chosen in such an injudicious manner. The proceedings in the northern conclave will be hidden from the yeomanry of this country. We are told that the yeas and nays shall be taken, and entered on the journals. This, sir, will avail nothing: it may be locked up in their chests, and concealed forever from the people; for they are not to publish what parts they think require secrecy: they may think, and will think, the whole requires it. Another beautiful feature of this Constitution is, the publication from time to time of the receipts and expenditures of the public money.

[9 June]

Mr. Henry. I shall make a few observations to prove that the power over elections, which is given to Congress, is contrived by the federal government, that the people may be deprived of their proper influence in the government, by destroying the force and effect of their suffrages. Congress is to have a discretionary control over the time, place, and manner of elections. The representatives are to be elected, consequently, when and where they please. As to the time and place, gentlemen have attempted to obviate the objection by saying, that the time is to happen once in two years, and that the place is to be within a particular district, or in the respective counties. But how will they obviate the danger of referring the manner of election to Congress? Those illumined genii may see that this may not endanger the rights of the people; but in my unenlightened understanding, it appears plain and clear that it will impair the popular weight in the government. Look at the Roman history. They had two ways of voting--the one by tribes, and the other by centuries. By the former, numbers prevailed; in the latter, riches preponderated. According to the mode prescribed, Congress may tell you that they [Volume 2, Page 268] have a right to make the vote of one gentleman go as far as the votes of a hundred poor men. The power over the manner admits of the most dangerous latitude. They may modify it as they please. They may regulate the number of votes by the quantity of property, without involving any repugnancy to the Constitution. I should not have thought of this trick or contrivance, had I not seen how the public liberty of Rome was trifled with by the mode of voting by centuries, whereby one rich man had as many votes as a multitude of poor men. The plebeians were trampled on till they resisted. The patricians trampled on the liberties of the plebeians till the latter had the spirit to assert their right to freedom and equality. The result of the American mode of election may be similar.

[14 June]

Mr. Monroe wished that the honorable gentleman, who had been in the federal Convention, would give information respecting the clause concerning elections. He wished to know why Congress had an ultimate control over the time, place, and manner, of elections of representatives, and the time and manner of that of senators, and also why there was an exception as to the place of electing senators.

Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, the reason of the exception was, that, if Congress could fix the place of choosing the senators, it might compel the state legislatures to elect them in a different place from that of their usual sessions, which would produce some inconvenience, and was not necessary for the object of regulating the elections. But it was necessary to give the general government a control over the time and manner of choosing the senators, to prevent its own dissolution.

With respect to the other point, it was thought that the regulation of time, place, and manner, of electing the representatives, should be uniform throughout the continent. Some states might regulate the elections on the principles of equality, and others might regulate them otherwise. This diversity would be obviously unjust. Elections are regulated now unequally in some states, particularly South Carolina, with respect to Charleston, which is represented by thirty members. Should the people of any state by any means be deprived of the right of suffrage, it was judged proper that it should be remedied by the general government. It was found impossible to fix the time, place, and manner, of the election of representatives, in the Constitution. It was found necessary to leave the regulation of these, in the first place, to the state governments, as being best acquainted with the situation of the people, subject to the control of the general government, in order to enable it to produce uniformity, and prevent its own dissolution. And, considering the state governments and general government as distinct bodies, acting in different and independent capacities for the people, it was thought the particular regulations should be submitted to the former, and the general regulations to the latter. Were they exclusively under the control of the state governments, the general government might easily be dissolved. But if they be regulated properly by the state legislatures, the congressional control will very probably never be exercised. The power appears to me satisfactory, and as unlikely to be abused as any part of the Constitution.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1, Document 16
The University of Chicago Press

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.

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