Disenfranchisement: historical underpinnings and contemporary manifestations.

Author:Blessett, Brandi


Justice and democracy are fundamental to American society, at least according to the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights, which argue for the inalienable rights of all 'citizens' (1) to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. In the United States, suffrage is equated to citizenship and citizenship defines membership, decision-making authority, and deservingness. Despite such proclamations, citizenship has been historically conceptualized by what hooks (2013) calls the "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" framework (p. 4). This phrase represents the multiple systems of oppressions that marginalize minorities (by white supremacy), the poor (by capitalist exploitation), women (by patriarchy), and other groups that do not adhere to the dominant conceptualizations of power. The intersection of race, class, gender, age, and ability reveals a status hierarchy that influences public policy and determines the allocation of benefits and burdens across demographic groups. According to hooks (2013) "This phrase is useful precisely because it does not prioritize one system over another but rather offers us a way to think about the interlocking systems that work together to uphold and maintain cultures of domination" (p. 4). Therefore, the antithesis to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy means to be deemed as "the other" in American society. This designation of "the other" has historically been associated with minorities, women, homosexuals, and the disabled, which has justified their exclusion from full participation in society. Consequently, the dual causality of public policy and social construction reveals an interconnection among these groups (Schriner, 2005).

This paper uses two theories to understand and explain how disenfranchisement becomes socially acceptable based on the negative social construction of perceived dependence. The social construction of target population framework is used to examine the language used to conceptualize Blacks (2), in particular, and minorities in general as unworthy and undeserving of the franchise (Schneider & Ingram, 1993, 1997). A historical overview will highlight the common discourse used to deny suffrage rights to Blacks. Second, critical race theory (CRT) is used to explain the implications of disenfranchisement. Using two core tenets of CRT, colorblind policies and interest convergence, this study offers an interpretation of the effects of disenfranchisement on individuals, communities, and societies. CRT is useful because it not only requires an evaluation of injustice, but also demands a response by stakeholders to mitigate the oppressive influences of discrimination. This paper uses Schneider and Ingram's (1993, 1997) social construction of populations (advantaged versus dependent) to link the positive or negative outcomes that directly relate to extending the franchise to American citizens. Although counterproductive to the ideas of American democracy whereby all people are "created equal," these distinctions are widely accepted and facilitated through the use of colorblind policies (e.g. neutral and nonbiased) and the narrowed self-interest of the existing power structure (e.g. affluent Whites). Ultimately, such distinctions manifest themselves into legislative action either in support for or in opposition to individuals, groups, and problems.

This study seeks to highlight the increasing efforts by state legislatures around the country to marginalize those deemed as "the other" through the enactment of disenfranchisement legislation. Although efforts to marginalize "the other" are not new in American society, the strategies used today are subtle and race-neutral (colorblind), which gives the impression that they are fair and equally impactful for all groups. However, the latest election reform legislation trends reveal that state legislatures are adopting policies that have a racially disproportionate impact on low-income minority groups. These trends are harmful based on their ability to isolate people and whole communities from the decision-making power associated with voting. Therefore, recognition of this disparity is needed in order to educate and empower the public about the implications of disenfranchisement--not only individuals and communities, but for the integrity of our democratic system.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Elections Reform database was used to identify disenfranchisement policies enacted by state legislatures from 2001-2010. The NCSL database identifies, categorizes, and summaries voting reforms from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. This data is used to highlight the adoption of state level policies that are marginalizing to those factions deemed as "the other." The final section of the paper discusses the practical consequences of social constructions that inform public policy and its impact on communities and citizenship.


Schneider and Ingram's (1993) social construction of target population theory (hereafter referred to as SCTP) is the framework used to examine Black disenfranchisement in the United States. Social construction refers to the varying ways in which realities of the world are shaped; reflects the way objects present themselves in different social settings, mental structures, and historical circumstances; and are often generalized, intersubjective, and thoroughly embedded in our daily lives, thus making them difficult to observe (Schneider & Ingram, 1997). Therefore, the utility of using a social construction framework lies in its ability to bring the lived experiences of non-dominant groups to the forefront of public debate. Traditional methodologies in policy analysis ignored the influence of history and politics in the development of public policies and diminished the influence and authority of discourse, rhetoric, and narratives in informing policy decisions. However, the SCTP recognizes the significance of context and the importance of developing counter-narratives to challenge the dominant discourse that inform which groups are deserving or unworthy of public resources and assistance. Collectively, SCTP is a lens to understand how socially driven forces inform policy decisions.

The social construction of target population theory is rooted in the following principles: 1) culture and popular images of individuals and groups affect public policy; 2) public officials are heavily influenced by social constructions which shape the policy agenda and actual design of policy; and 3) politicians are pressured to conform to the status quo, whereby positively constructed groups receive benefits while negatively constructed groups are burdened by public policies (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). More specifically, SCTP examines the rules, tools, and rationales embedded in policy designs to explain the divergent policy outcomes for populations socially constructed as advantaged or dependent (Schneider & Ingram, 1997). Schneider and Ingram (1997) argue that such design elements contain symbolic and interpretive dimensions that are as important as the instrumental means directed at achieving goals. In this regard, the procedures, values, and justifications for policy development and design determine the worth of the populations targeted for policy action.

Schneider and Ingram (1993) identified four target populations: advantaged, contenders, dependents, and deviants. Figure 1 identifies each target population with respect to their positions of power (weak or strong) and construction type (positive or negative).

Advantaged groups are perceived to be both powerful and positively constructed, such as the elderly and business. Contenders, such as unions and the rich, are powerful but negatively constructed, usually undeserving. Dependents might include children or mothers and are considered to be politically weak, but they carry generally positive constructions. Deviants, such as criminals, are in the worse situation, since they are weak and negatively constructed (Schneider & Ingram, 1993, p. 336).

While each typology is important to understand the divergent experiences of target populations, it should be noted that these constructions are issue- and context-specific. Steedman (2012) argues

this interplay between race and dependence and independence provides the resources for articulating paternalist liberal defenses of racial hierarchy. Race thus limits the possibilities of full democratic citizenship, but provides a frame within which citizens reconcile democratic commitments and practices of subordination (p. 3). Typologies become embedded into society's subconscious and difficult to alter. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the leverage of such conceptions on informing public opinion and policy decisions. Within the context of this paper, advantaged will refer to Whites and dependents will refer to minorities based on the long-standing constructions that have been previously used. The SCTP exposes the contradiction of American democracy whereby access to the franchise has been, and continues to be limited based racial hierarchies and subjective measures of appeal, ability, and deservingness by the advantaged class. In other words most, Whites have always been considered racially superior in the United States, which granted them all of the rights and privileges outlined in the founding documents of this country. The result has led to power being concentrated in the hands of Whites, which has empowered them with the authority and resources to create policies, influence the economic and political decisions that govern the country, and shape the images of people and places as worthy and deserving or dependent and deviant. Minorities, on the other hand, have never fully been able to participate in the governing of the country based on their restricted access to...

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