Carrie Chapman Catt

Whose Government is This? – April 14, 1921

Carrie Chapman Catt
April 14, 1921— Cleveland, Ohio
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Catt delivered this address at the Cleveland Convention of the League of Women Voters.

The question for our consideration is whether the department of Election Laws and Methods is sufficiently important to make it a part of the work of the League of Women Voters. It may at this moment be less appealing to many women, but for that very reason it is more necessary for women voters to comprehend its need.

If any other department of the League should be dropped, for example, Women in Industry, Social Hygiene, Child Welfare, other organizations would be responsible for the necessary work to be done, as they were before these departments were adopted by the League of Women Voters; but if the political department be dropped there is no other body of women to take it up.

We were enfranchised in 1920. We ought to have been enfranchised twenty years earlier at least, and that is not mere talk. The reason why we were not enfranchised long before some of you were old enough to take an interest in public questions was that government by the people rarely functions in this country, and it does not really function anywhere in the world as yet. There are many cases why it does not function and any one of these causes may at any time be sufficient to delay normal progress in a government such as ours.

Controlling Groups

A small group of people determined to oppose promised legislation, if provided with money, as were the brewers and distillers, may hold back legislation and prevent action being taken, even though the masses of the people demand action. What the wets did to the suffrage movement other groups of people have done and may do for other great causes. Such groups of people may make controlling contributions to political parties and in return secure promises of no action in legislatures or Congress, provided that party is elected to power. It may secure the orders of that party, all the way down the line to the most remote rural election district chairman, to defeat a referendum.

Why were the railroads fighting ratification in Tennessee? Certainly not because the railroads cared whether women voted or not. Why was the Manufacturers' Association there to work against ratification? It was because these interests, quite disconnected, combined their lobbies to help the program of any one of them with the expectation that all the lobbies would be combined in support of their own program when necessity arose. The combination of these lobbies against suffrage has happened over and over again. Presumably the program was that of the liquor interests, but many other interests united in its support.

There is also the autocracy of what is known as the boss system to be watched. In one of the states which did not ratify there were six men charged with being owned absolutely by a political boss, and they boldly and frankly said that they would not vote for ratification nor yet against it nor tell any one what they would do until they had had their orders from their man. This boss wanted to retire from politics and refused to give orders because he said if he did so these men would expect in return various political favors which would cost him a good deal of money and would prevent his retirement from politics as soon as he desired, so he refused day after day to say the word. I have always believed that because these six men waited for the order that never came we lost the ratification. They did not have sense enough to know what they wanted to do themselves.

A system in this country for taking the vote of electors has been worked out. It has been from decade to decade much improved, but there are pitfalls for honest voters in almost every department and before the business of taking the people's vote is a perfectly conducted one there must be a veritable revolution in the methods of taking the vote, getting the nominations, making the platforms, and securing the legislation.

For example, in the recent presidential election voters found it impossible to support the policies they approved by voting any one ticket. A Republican in Jew Jersey who wanted to support both the League of Nations and dry enforcement had to choose which he wanted the more, for he could not do both and vote one ticket. An Irish Democrat in New York who wanted to go against the League of Nations and also against dry enforcement found the same difficulty.

These were two questions only in that campaign and there were many others. So difficult was it for women to register the opinions they wanted to express in that election that very many of them felt the vote would never be of any value to them. What happened then, happens all the time, because there is a conflict between the state and the nation and because political machines and bosses do so much political juggling over issues.

Reform, therefore, is needed all along the line. It is needed in the election of the President of the United States and all the way down to the dog-catcher in the smallest village.

Where We Need Reform

Perhaps we need it most in our platform making. Ours is a country governed by parties. Parties are of tremendous power in this land, so tremendous that they can give the order whether a referendum submitted by the legislature shall be carried or rejected, and the obedient electors walk up to the polls and defeat or adopt the measure. Platforms are made and are supported by those who have interest in them and voters have little or nothing to say about issues to be included. Party loyalty is relied upon to carry the ticket pledged to the platforms and party loyalty usually successfully accomplishes the aim set by the managers.

Progress is being made toward reform; every decade witnesses improvement, but we are traveling forward too slowly. If ours is to be the greatest leading nation among the world's nations we must only look to the method of the registering of the opinions of the people with greater care than is now the case, but more assiduous attention must be paid to the education of the people in the issues that are properly to be decided at the polls.

Therefore the Committee on Election Laws and Methods recommends that this special committee shall be dropped and that Efficiency in Government, which is a more inclusive term than Election Laws and Methods, be made a chief department of the National League of Women Voters. That is, the committee would magnify and emphasize political work.

There are three main reasons for this proposed change:

First. We were a political body when we were working for the suffrage and we secured the vote by political action. Political work therefore lies along the line of the experience and the training of this body. I repeat that if the successor of the Suffrage Association does not take politics as one of its chief branches of work no other group of women will.

Second. Where women have voted they have centered their political efforts on correction of laws concerning women and children. They have so specialized that they have kept out of the real domain of the management of political parties and that, too, without realizing how completely they have remained on the outside. To exert their best and most effective influence in politics, women must be on the inside of parties, and before that can be brought about they must understand better than they do the strength and weakness of each political process.

Third. The education in citizenship, through citizenship schools, has been directly under the management of the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters. Its schools have been teaching things as they are, urging women to understand politics as they are, and to take a place in the parties. Now our committee urges a deeper study into basic methods and procedure of taking the record of the "voice of the people." Such study belongs properly with education in citizenship and should be combined with it. Therefore we urge that a study of politics shall be elevated to an equal position with education in citizenship and that the two be combined in one department.

We suggest that the program shall include the following: Each State League of Women Voters to call a preliminary conference of experienced and interested men and women for the purpose of organizing a representative and influential state committee for the study of Efficient Government and How to Secure It. This committee when organized should appoint a small committee or series of committees composed of thoroughly competent persons to study state conditions under such of the following ten heads as are most needed by the respective state:

  1. The state election law.
  2. Election officers; how to secure and train them by the best methods.
  3. Election booths; how they may be improved.
  4. Ballots; model forms; voting machines vs. printed ballots; the long and short ballot plan.
  5. The primary law and how it may be improved.
  6. The elimination from politics of corruption and trickery; campaign funds; corrupt practice acts.
  7. Proportional representation.
  8. How to make city government more efficient and more representative.
  9. How to make township, county and state government more efficient and more representative.
  10. How to make national government more efficient and more representative.

The committee further recommends:

  1. That each State League shall hold a state conference on Efficient Government, covering several days, at which competent persons shall present to the public the main factors essential to efficiency in government. Such a conference would virtually be a school, but a different kind of school than any yet held. It would be a study of existing weaknesses and a further study of proposed remedies.
  2. That each local league be urged to arrange and carry out at least one public meeting during the year, which shall present the main facts concerning the political reform most needed in its state. (In some states it will be the primary; in others the county government; in some city management.)
  3. That the National Board compile a bibliography on Efficient Government.
  4. That each State League of Women Voters secure a set of these books and keep them moving as a traveling library.
  5. That each local league place as many of these books in local libraries as possible.

No immediate legislation is recommended. Since each state has a separate and distinct state development it is impossible to recommend uniform procedure for each state. The committee recommends that each State League shall study and investigate the law or method that presents the most pressing need and lend its influence in support of the most needed reform.

The committee, however, urges that each State League exert its utmost influence in opposition to any attempted repeal of the state primary laws and that support be given to proposed amendments which tend to make nominations more representative of the wishes of the masses of the voters.

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