views updated May 23 2018


The removal of the rights and privileges inherent in an association with a group; the taking away of the rights of a free citizen, especially the right to vote. Sometimes called disenfranchisement.

The relinquishment of a person's right to membership in a corporation is distinguishable from a motion, which is the act of removing an officer from an office without depriving him or her of membership in the corporate body.

In U.S. law, disfranchisement most commonly refers to the removal of the right to vote, which is also called the franchise or suffrage. Historically, states passed a variety of laws disfranchising poor people, insane people, and criminals. Most conspicuously, the jim crow laws passed by Southern states effectively disfranchised African-Americans from the late nineteenth century until well into the 20th century.

During Reconstruction, following the Civil War, African-Americans in the South briefly enjoyed voting privileges that were nearly equal to those of whites. However, beginning around 1890, legally sanctioned disfranchisement occurred on a huge scale. For example, during the years directly following the Civil War, African-Americans made up as much as 44 percent of the registered electorate in Louisiana, but by 1920, they constituted only 1 percent of the electorate. In Mississippi, almost 70 percent of eligible African-Americans were registered to vote in 1867; after 1890, fewer than 6 percent were eligible to vote. There were similar decreases in the percentages of elected black officials in all Southern states.

Although the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1870, asserts that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," Southern states established laws and practices that circumvented these provisions. They employed disfranchisement devices such as poll taxes, property tests, literacy tests, and all-white primaries to prevent African-Americans from voting. On the surface, such laws discriminated on the basis of education and property ownership

rather than race, but their practical and intended effect was to block African-Americans from the polls. Legal devices called grandfather clauses allowed poor and illiterate whites to avoid discriminatory tests on the grounds that they or their ancestors had previously had the franchise. When discriminatory laws were combined with the violence and intimidation directed at potential black voters by white hate groups such as the ku klux klan, the silencing of the African-American political voice was almost complete.

Despite Supreme Court rulings striking down discriminatory measures as early as 1915 (see, e.g., Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S. Ct. 926, 59 L. Ed. 1340 [1915]), Southern states continued to bar African-Americans from voting for most of the twentieth century. Only with the passage of the voting rights act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.) did twentieth-century African-Americans in the South finally reach the polls in significant numbers. For example, in 1965, only 19 percent of nonwhites in Alabama and 7 percent of non-whites in Mississippi were registered to vote. Four years later, after passage of the voting rights act, the percentages of non-white registrants in Alabama and Mississippi had jumped to 57 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Although blatant disfranchisement is somewhat rare in current elections, claims of racism still occur. During the 2000 presidential election, which was one of the most heavily contested and highly controversial in history, thousands of minority voters claimed that their votes were not counted due to minor errors on their ballots. Federal election law leaves the particular voting procedures in presidential elections to the states, so the states use a variety of techniques to count the ballots. Many states used a hole-punch method, where machines count ballots based upon holes punched in ballot cards. If the machine could not read the card, which may occur if the hole punch is incomplete or if more than one hole is punched, the vote was not counted. This was particularly problematic in the state of Florida, which was the subject of a national controversy surrounding the proper vote count. During the initial election on November 7, 2000, and during subsequent recounts during the weeks following the election, many votes were not counted due to errors, and many minority voters claimed that they cast many of the discounted votes. Minority groups have pressured Congress to enact stricter standards in order to prevent this occurrence in future elections.

Other forms of disfranchisement, including the disfranchisement of criminals, remain controversial. Since the early 1990s, all but three states prohibited imprisoned offenders from voting. Thirty-five states disfranchise offenders on probation or parole, and fourteen disfranchise ex-offenders for life. Because a disproportionate share of convicted criminals are non-white, some have argued that such laws constitute a racially discriminatory voting barrier that is as pernicious as poll taxes and literacy tests. Many state criminal disfranchisement laws date back to the Reconstruction era, and such laws were often targeted at offenses for which African-Americans were disproportionately convicted. For this reason, some groups have called for the reform or removal of criminal disfranchisement laws.

further readings

Belknap, Michael, ed. 1991. Civil Rights, the White House, and the Justice Department. New York: Garland.

Reitman, Alan, and Robert B. Davidson. 1972. The Election Process: Voting Laws and Procedures. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana.

Schmidt, Benno C., Jr. 1982. "Black Disfranchisement from the KKK to the Grandfather Clause." Columbia Law Review 82 (June).

Shapiro, Andrew L. 1993. "Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement under the Voting Rights Act." Yale Law Journal 103 (November).


views updated May 29 2018


DISFRANCHISEMENT is a denial of the right to vote. Before 1776, a higher proportion of Americans could vote than in any other country. Still, the vast majority of women and free persons of color were voteless, and white men who owned less than a certain amount of property, such as forty acres of land, or land or housing that would rent for forty British shillings per year, were also disfranchised. Property qualifications, which primarily affected younger men, were considerably loosened even before 1800 and were generally abolished in the 1820s and 1830s. By the Civil War, America enjoyed nearly universal white male adult citizen suffrage, and during the nineteenth century, twenty-two states enfranchised male immigrants who had indicated their intention to become citizens. But African American males could vote only in New England and, for those who owned substantial property, in New York State. No females could vote.

Although voters rejected universal black male suffrage in twelve of fifteen referenda in northern states from 1846 to 1869, Republicans extended the vote to southern black males by congressional act in 1867 and to all black males through the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Efforts to include women in the Fifteenth Amendment failed, and the movement for female suffrage took another fifty years, slowly but gradually winning support at the local and state levels until it developed sufficient strength to win passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

By the time most white women won the vote, nearly all southern black men and many southern white men had lost it. Their disfranchisement came about gradually, through a sequence of actions motivated by inseparably intertwined racial and partisan interests. The process began when the Ku Klux Klan wing of the Democratic Party attacked its white and African American opponents. Violence and intimidation allowed Democrats to conquer the polls, stuff ballot boxes, and count in more Democrats. Democratic state legislators passed laws that, for instance, gerrymandered districts to make it harder for blacks and Republicans to win, and they restricted the rights of individuals to vote by requiring them to register long before elections or pay high poll taxes. They also mandated secret ballots or required voters to deposit ballots for different offices into separate ballot boxes, both of which served as de facto literacy tests.

To secure white Democratic supremacy permanently, upper-class southern leaders beginning in 1890 engineered the passage of state constitutional provisions that required voters to pay poll taxes and pass literacy or property tests administered by racist, partisan registrars. Disfranchisement transformed a southern political system with fairly vigorous party competition, solid voter turnout, and somewhat egalitarian governmental policy to one with no parties, shrunken participation, few policy benefits for poorer whites, and almost no role for African Americans.

Only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were such laws overturned and a free, competitive political system restored to the South. Even today, state laws that disfranchise felons and former felons, particularly in the South, deny the vote to 4.7 million U.S. citizens, 36 percent of whom are black. In ten states, such laws disfranchise a quarter or more of black adult males.


Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kousser, J. Morgan. Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Perman, Michael. Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

J. MorganKousser

See alsoPoll Tax ; Suffrage ; Voting .