Is universal suffrage effective?

Since the enfranchisement of women in 1920, have the decisions of the American electorate tended to be better or worse than those it used to make before women had the vote?

Of course it’s impossible to give a definitive or objective answer to that question, but in an attempt to get something at least marginally more objective than my own personal impressions, I looked at the results of the popular vote in presidential elections both before and after the passage of the 19th amendment. Wikipedia’s Historical rankings of Presidents of the United States article lists the results of 16 different surveys in which historians were asked to rank the presidents from best to worst, and I used those results to decide whether the decision made by a given popular vote should be considered a good one or a bad one. A “good” president is one who made the first or second quartile in every single survey in which he was considered; a “bad” president is one who never made first or second quartile; “average/disputed” covers the rest.

The numbers represent elections, not presidents, and the popular vote is what counts. For example, Andrew Jackson only served two terms but is counted three times because he won the popular vote in three different elections; George W. Bush, who also served two terms but only won one popular vote, is only counted once. Candidates who won the popular vote but never served as president (Samuel J. Tilden and Al Gore) are ignored, since we have no way of knowing how good or bad they would have been at the job.

Here’s what the resulting numbers look like:

Prior to 1920, the voters made “good” choices 59% of the time. After the enfranchisement of women, that figure dropped dramatically to 33%. There are numerous reasons to take those numbers with large quantities of salt — the pre-/post-1920 division is too simplistic (women in a few states were enfranchised much earlier), there are innumerable confounding variables which can’t be controlled for, and the underlying data about presidential “goodness” are inherently subjective — but it still gives one pause for thought.

But even if the data were indisputable — if, hypothetically, it could be conclusively proven that universal suffrage tends to produce poorer decisions than male-only democracy — I doubt it would matter to most people. The case for universal suffrage (and for democracy generally) is rarely put in utilitarian terms. (There are presumably few who honestly believe the absurdity that holding a popularity contest in which everyone’s opinion is given equal weight is the most effective way — or even an effective way — of ensuring that good leaders are chosen.) Most Americans take it for granted that women’s suffrage is a good thing, not because they think women are better at making decisions, and that we will be better governed if women are involved in choosing our leaders, but because they have come to think of the franchise as a basic human right, to be granted indiscriminately as a matter of principle regardless of the consequences.

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Details, for those who care:

The good presidents represented in the above charts are: Washington (2), John Adams (1), Jefferson (2), Madison (2), Jackson (3), Polk (1), Lincoln (2), Cleveland (3), Theodore Roosevelt (1), Wilson (2); and, after female suffrage, Franklin D. Roosevelt (4), Truman (1), Kennedy (1), and Lyndon B. Johnson (1). The average/disputed presidents are: Monroe (2), Van Buren (1), Grant(2), McKinley (2), Taft (1); and, after female suffrage, Eisenhower (2), Reagan (2), George H. W. Bush (1), Clinton (2), and George W. Bush (1). The bad presidents are: William Henry Harrison (1), Taylor (1), Pierce (1), Buchanan (1), Garfield (1); and, after female suffrage, Harding (1), Coolidge (1), Hoover (1), Nixon (2), and Carter (1). The following presidents (mostly bad) never won the popular vote and so are not counted: John Quincy Adams, Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Ford. Obama is also excluded because his overall performance can’t be judged until he has finished his term.

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