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Disenfranchisement and the Capacity/Equality Puzzle: Why Disenfranchise Children but Not Adults Living with Cognitive Disabilities

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In this paper, I offer a solution to the Capacity/Equality Puzzle. The puzzle holds that an account of the franchise may adequately capture at most two of the following: (1) a political equality-based account of the franchise, (2) a capacity-based account of disenfranchising children, and (3) universal adult enfranchisement. To resolve the puzzle, I provide a complex liberal egalitarian justification of a moral requirement to disenfranchise children. I show that disenfranchising children is permitted by both the proper political liberal and the proper political egalitarian understandings of the relationship between cognitive capacity and the franchise. Further, I argue, disenfranchising children is required by a minimalistic, procedural principle of collective competence in political decision-making. At the same time, I show that political equality requires the enfranchisement of all adults, regardless of cognitive capacities, and that the collective competence principle does not ground adult disenfranchisement. This justifies the progressive legal trend that holds the capacity-based disenfranchisement of adults to be incompatible with liberal democratic principles.

Corresponding author: Attila Mráz, Harvard University, E. J. Safra Center for Ethics, 124 Mt. Auburn St, Suite 520N, Cambridge, 02138, MA, USA,


I am indebted to János Kis, Zoltán Miklósi, and Daniel Viehoff for several inspiring discussions and their detailed comments on earlier versions of this work. Thanks are due to Rainer Bauböck, too, for extensive written comments on an earlier version, and to the participants and organizers of the workshop on Non-Universal Franchise? Eligibility and Access to Voting Rights in Transnational Context at the European University Institute, as well as to the participants and organizers of the MANCEPT workshop on The Politics and Ethics of Disenfranchisement at The University of Manchester. My thanks also go to Péter Cserne, Dmitrii Dorogov, and two anonymous reviewers of this Journal for very helpful suggestions and comments.


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Published Online: 2020-08-11
Published in Print: 2020-11-26

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