Academic journal article Theory in Action

The Politics of Disenfranchisement: Ideas and Action

Academic journal article Theory in Action

The Politics of Disenfranchisement: Ideas and Action

Article excerpt

If "disenfranchisement" were proffered in a game of word association, the first terms to emerge would likely be related to voting. A basic Google search underscores this link: nearly all of the hits on the first ten pages of Google results are about voting rights. Similarly, Wikipedia begins the entry on "disenfranchisement" by describing it as the "revocation of the right of suffrage (the right to vote)."2 Both historical and contemporary records justify this popular emphasis on the infringement of voting rights as a central mechanism of disenfranchisement (Keyssar 2000; Redding 2003; Valelly 2004; Uggen and Manza 2008; Michener, "Race, Poverty"; Bateman 2016). Still, while being stripped of the right to vote is a particularly arresting instantiation of disenfranchisement-it is not the only one. Common .understandings of disenfranchisement may be dominated by its connection to voting, but a bit of probing reveals the vague contours of less salient, more capacious notions of disenfranchisement. For example, immediately following the description noted above, Wikipedia states that disenfranchisement is more broadly, "the revocation of power or control of a particular individual, community or being." Similarly, MerriamWebster dictionary defines "disenfranchise" as, "to deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity; especially: to deprive of the right to vote.

My goal in this essay is twofold. First, to elaborate an expansive political perspective on disenfranchisement. Second, to connect that broadened conceptualization of disenfranchisement to a vision for political action. Ideas matter, and action does too. By considering both, I advance a theoretically and practically important conversation about the politics of disenfranchisement, the empowerment of the disenfranchised, and the responsibilities of the enfranchised.


I define disenfranchisement as the revocation or denial of full and equal inclusion in the political community as a result of the direct or indirect actions of the state. Of course, contemplating the limits and scope of "inclusion" raises thorny issues that I cannot address here (Young, 2000; Dilts 2014).3 Nonetheless, disenfranchisement so often happens to individuals and groups that are officially, rhetorically and widely understood to be a part of the polity, that one need not even delve into the weeds of delineating the bounds of the political community in order to make the case that marginalized segments are excluded.4 Disenfranchisement occurs when the, "coercive, administrative [or] symbolic" powers of the state5 are deployed to systematically impede particular individuals or groups from engaging in the practices of democracy (Anseli and Torfing 72). Crucially, those practices go beyond simple, "membership and voting rights" to encompass, "participation and voice for all those affected by problems and their proposed solutions" (Young 2000:10).

With this characterization of disenfranchisement in view, I'll consider a few concrete examples. By appraising tangible cases of disenfranchisement, we can begin to erect the conceptual scaffolding necessary to imagine (and move towards) a more robust franchise.


Let's start with the proverbial elephant in the room: felony disenfranchisement. Though disenfranchisement transcends voting, it is fitting to begin with this most prominent and egregious example of state sponsored political exclusion. Over 6 million Americans are barred from voting because of a felony conviction (Uggen et al.). Since the wards of the carceral state are overwhelmingly poor (Rabuy and Kopf) and disproportionally people of color (Travis et al.), felony disenfranchisement has especially acute consequences for political life in marginalized communities. Strikingly, 1 of every 13 African-Americans has lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction, compared to 1 of every 56 "non-black" Americans (Chung). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.