A Novel Usage of the Word “Disenfranchise”

I admit it: Sometimes I have the TV on without paying full attention, because I’m busy on the computer. But occasionally a phrase will jump across the cognitive divide and prick my brain. Last night, I heard a clip of Republican North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory saying a few words that made me wonder if I’d heard him right. So I Googled them (as a phrase, including quotation marks): “disenfranchised by a fraudulent ballot”. Yes, I confirmed, that’s what he said. Here is the whole quote:

Gov. Pat McCrory“Let me be direct: Many of those from the extreme left who have been criticizing photo ID are using scare tactics. They’re more interested in divisive politics than ensuring that no one’s vote is disenfranchised by a fraudulent ballot.”

This is in a video released by the Governor on August 12, 2013.

Now, this struck me as a very odd way to use the word “disenfranchise”. It’s usually applied to situations where someone was prevented from voting. How could someone’s vote be “disenfranchised by a fraudulent ballot”? Whose vote, exactly, are we talking about, and whose is the fraudulent ballot?

Could it be that the disenfranchised voter is the one casting the fraudulent ballot? No, clearly that can’t be what the Governor means. He is against fraudulent ballots, of course, and naturally does not care about the disenfranchisement of fraudsters.

The disenfranchised voter must be someone other than the fraudster. But who? Every ballot is counted independently; it has nothing to do with other ballots. If a ballot is determined to be invalid, it’s simply tossed out without being counted, which doesn’t affect the counting of other ballots. So the disenfranchisement he speaks of does not exclusively affect any particular voter.

That leaves only one logical way to construe Gov. McCrory’s statement: that the disenfranchisement caused by a fraudulent ballot extends to every non-fraudulent voter. He’s saying that when a fraudster gets away with casting a ballot, we are all disenfranchised.

Does this make any sense? Well, if voter fraud were a big problem (which it isn’t), it is possible that fraudulent ballots could change the outcome of an election, damaging the interests of those voters whose candidate was denied victory. But we don’t call that disenfranchisement. We call it fraud. And we may rightly say that some votes didn’t count as much as they should have, because they weren’t reflected in the outcome.

(If votes not counting sounds to you like an extraordinary travesty, then you must be new to this country. It happens all the time. To take just one example, in 2012 President Obama got 41% of the vote in Texas, yet 100% of the state’s electors voted for Mitt Romney. The votes of more than 3 million Texans didn’t count. And 47 other states use the same winner-take-all system in presidential elections.)

No, the inescapable conclusion seems to be that either McCrory doesn’t know what “disenfranchise” means, or he is deliberately twisting the meaning of the word.

We have a lot of problems with voting in the US. Voter disenfranchisement is one of them, and we need to solve it. In order to do so, we obviously need to understand what it is: the denial of a person’s right to vote. People who blur the lines, who try to redefine the word to suit their own agenda as Gov. Pat McCrory did, aren’t part of the solution. They’re part of the problem.


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2 Responses to A Novel Usage of the Word “Disenfranchise”

  1. Esteban says:

    Ever hear of “indirect disenfranchisement” genius? Look it up Mr Journalist.

  2. Hamilton Richards says:

    Another interpretation of “fraudulent ballot” is a blank ballot which is somehow rigged to be uncountable, resulting in the voter being disenfranchised. For example, a ballot might have a subtle stray mark which a crooked election judge could use as an excuse to disqualify it—depending, of course, on which candidates it favored.

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