Guilty as Charged: Prisoners and "Democracy"
The ongoing debate regarding the voting rights of prisoners integrates two fundamental political and philosophical questions: what constitutes an individual as a human and what is democracy? Though we know that there are many instances in which human status is denied (refugees, genocide, mass rape, etc.), we rarely question the tenets of our democratic political structure. Can we call ourselves a democracy when universal franchise is only extended to certain populations? It seems troubling that prisoners must be tried, convicted, and sentenced by a system in which they will become essentially non-citizens, not to mention the fact that the majority of prisoners are African-Americans and Latinos.
Arato and Cohen’s work on the civil sphere emphasizes the need to examine these democratic principles. Distinguishing between elite and participatory democracy, liberalism and communitarianism their work reveals the fault lines of democratic rule. These fault lines are often exposed in instances such as the citizen status/franchise of prisoners and in the racial and gendered profiles of these prisoners. We must ask ourselves whether a majority white population of prisoners would be denied voting rights, whether universal franchise is an ideal or a norm, and what this issue reveals about the democracy we claim to live in.
NY Times “A Loss for Voting Rights”