Disenfranchisement or disfranchisement is the revocation of the right of suffrage (the right to vote) to a person or group of people, or rendering a person's vote less effective, or ineffective. Disfranchisement might occur explicitly through law, or implicitly by intimidation.
Disfranchisement at place of residence and minoritiesIn proportional representation systems which use election thresholds, parties which fail to meet the specified thresholds often claim that their supporters have been disfranchised since their votes do not translate into any legislative seats, and thus effectively do not count.
Voters in the District of Columbia, the U.S. capital, are subject to a partial disfranchisement: they are not represented in Congress. Until the passage of the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1961, they did not get to vote in presidential elections. Prior to the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, they did not elect their own mayor.
An example of unintentional disfranchisement of a group of people is expounded by supporters of the U.S. Electoral College. Briefly, electoral college supporters feel that strict majority vote would disfranchise the mostly rural American West, by denying them the ability to ever influence an election due to their small numbers. This would be unintentional disfranchisement as it is an effect of the change, not a direct goal of the change in voting law.
Another example is the disfranchisement of entire groups of people, such as fathers, women, unmarried or non-custodial parents, various racial, ethnic or religious minorities depending on the country, or members of some political groups. This has led to warfare, as in the case of the American Revolutionary War (the cry "No taxation without representation" conveys this message). This is a good example of the intentional disfranchisement of a group of people (British colonists in America) by the government in Britain. Similarly, the US citizens of Puerto Rico are subjected to many U.S. laws and in the past, have been conscripted to fight in US wars, but they have no Congressional representation or vote in presidential elections. Puerto Rico residents are subject to most U.S. taxes but are generally not subject to U.S. income tax laws unless they work for the U.S. Government or fall under various other exceptions.
Minors under the voting age are also disenfranchised. While this is supported by the idea that minors lack the capacity to cast an independent vote, minors are almost always subject to taxation by state and federal governments.
In Puerto Rico (United States Commonwealth Territory)
Various scholars (including a prominent U.S. judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit) conclude that the U.S. national-electoral process is not a democracy due to issues around voting rights in Puerto Rico. Citizens residing in Puerto Rico are not counted in the U.S. Census as part of the estimates it provides of the U.S. population. Furthermore, any U.S. citizen that moves to Puerto Rico (be it a Puerto Rican or not) loses his or her right to vote in any U.S. legislative and executive election at the national level. This is despite the U.S. Government Executive and Legislative Branches holding ultimate sovereignty over all U.S. Citizens and the territory of Puerto Rico. Both the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the New Progressive Party have rejected the status quo that permits disfranchisement (from their distinct respective positions on the ideal enfranchised status for the island-nation of Puerto Rico). The remaining political organization, the Popular Democratic Party, is less active in its opposition of this case of disfranchisement but has officially stated that it favors fixing the remaining "deficits of democracy" that the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have publicly recognized in writing through Presidential Task Force Reports.
Disfranchisement due to criminal conviction
In the USA
Many U.S. states intentionally disfranchise people based on criminal conviction by law. For many jurisdictions that do, usually a person is disfranchised after being sentenced to a penalty above some limit—for example, 6 months— but only as long as he or she is serving the sentence.
In 13 U.S. states including the District of Columbia (HI, IL, IN, MA, MI, MT, NH, ND, OH, OR, PA, RI, UT) persons convicted of a felony—that is, a crime punishable with a year's imprisonment or more—are denied the vote only while serving sentence in a state prison. Delaware has a similar law, but extends the disfranchisement period five years after release from custody.
One felony conviction results in perpetual disfranchisement in 10 other U.S. states, and in Maryland two convictions have the same consequence. In addition to these 11 states, 19 others also disfranchise persons who are on probation for a felony but were not sentenced to prison time. All of these plus five more states (or 35 in all) disqualify those on parole from voting.
Some states consider dishonorable discharge a felony conviction and disfranchise those affected.
Two states—Maine and Vermont—allow prison inmates to vote unless disfranchisement is meted out as a separate punishment.
Those affected are usually prohibited from voting in federal elections as well, even though their convictions were at the state level for state crimes, not federal crimes. This means that states with permanent disfranchisement prevent ex-convicts from ever voting in federal elections, even though ex-convicts in other states convicted of identical crimes may be allowed to vote in such elections.
As of 2005 there were at least two cases in the U.S. courts challenging disfranchisement of felons: Locke v. Farrakhan in Washington State and Hayden v. Pataki in New York. The NAACP LDF was involved in both cases.
In the UK
In the United Kingdom, all convicts are denied the right to vote while in prison. This is, however, under review, following an October 2005 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that a blanket ban is disproportionate. The review is still underway, but Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs has stated that it may result in some, but not all, prisoners being able to vote.
In Germany, all convicts are allowed to vote while in prison unless the loss of the right to vote is part of the sentence; courts can only hand out this sentence for specific "political" crimes (treason, high treason, electoral fraud, intimidation of voters etc) and for a duration of two to five years. All convicts sentenced to at least one year in prison also automatically lose the right to be elected in public elections for a duration of five years, and lose all positions they held as a result of such elections.
Inmates are allowed to vote in Israel, and there is likewise no subsequent disfranchisement of felons following parole, probation, or release from prison. Neither courts nor prison authorities have the power to disqualify any person from exercising the right to vote in national elections, whatever cause of imprisonment (i.e., including politically-related crimes). In fact, local scholarship has suggested that persons at odds with the law maintain a special interest in influencing the political process.
In other countries
In some countries, such as China, Portugal, disfranchisement due to criminal conviction is an exception, meted out separately or alone. This is usually imposed on a person convicted of a crime against the state (see civil death) or one related to election or public office.
In Belgium people who repeatedly fail to vote lose their right to vote.
Disfranchisement due to criminal conviction (otherwise than for electoral offences) is discussed extensively in the website of the Sentencing Project, an organization concerned with reducing prison sentences and ameliorating some of the negative effects of incarceration. Although the information provided by this organization is biased against various practices, the website provides a wealth of statistical data that reflects data available from organizations with opposing views, and from the United States government and various state governments.
- Disfranchisement in the United States after Reconstruction
- Lishenets (disfranchised in the Soviet Union)''
- Non-citizens (Latvia)
- Nuremberg Laws