While Kim Kardashian West reinvigorated the debate surrounding criminal justice reform outside of CNN or Washington, D.C. think tanks, the issue at hand is very prominent and detrimental to the democracy of the United States especially mass incarceration. The devastating effects of mass incarceration disportionately impacts African American and Hispanic families, populations that tend to vote Democrat, especially in the case of African American voters. In the United States prisoners are a vital component of the elections even though they virtually have no say. Their bodies and personhood are simultaneously stripped from them and weaponized against them.
Out of all the developed countries, the United States has the highest prison population at a staggering 2.3 million. Of this prison population, in 2017, 33% were African-American and 23% were Hispanic according to the Pew Research Center. African Americans and Hispanics account for just 28% of the US population. When such a large proportion of a population is silenced, how can the system that comes out of this repression reflect the will of the people?
In 2016, US politics became more polarized than it had ever been, resulting in the election of a President who won according to the electoral college, but not according to the popular vote. Only 60% of the voting population participated in this election. Of this 60%, only 6% of black people reported voting for President Trump while 54% of white voters did, and 28% of Hispanic voters. Moreover, this election resulted in Republicans gaining control of the House, the Senate and the presidency.
A democratic political system with regularly held, competitive elections does not equate to a government elected for the people by the people when most of the time “electoral decisions are not necessarily the will of the people, they are the will of certain people”. Since the 1970s, policies like mandatory minimum sentences and 100 to 1 gaps in sentencing ratios for drug offenses have contributed to mass incarceration, the legacy of which has disproportionately affected minorities.
While the US meets the criteria of being a democracy on paper by having free and fair elections and allowing the majority of the population to be eligible to vote, in practice the institutions set up to safeguard democratic rule actually hinders it . Elections may not be decided by a small subsect of the bourgeois but they still explicitly exclude and undermine already disadvantaged populations.
Voter suppression has been a hot topic since the 2018 midterm elections with one of the most famous and controversial races happening in Georgia when Stacey Abrams ran against Brian Kemp for the governorship. Abrams believes that Kemp, in his role as Georgia’s secretary of state, purged more than 85,000 voters three months prior to the election. In 2017, 668,000 voters were purged. Of these, only 200,000 were found to be valid removals after further investigation. Kemp claimed to have been removing the voters who had supposedly moved or passed away. However, especially when it comes to populations that are low income and minority groups -which often intersect -these criteria have a disproportionate impact. Individuals within these populations may not always have a permanent or stable address and they are less likely to vote in every election, but that does not give anyone, Secretary or not, the right to purge their vote without proper investigation and notice.
US elections may happen regularly and on the day of, they may seem free and fair, but the days leading up to them make all the difference because “only amateurs steal elections on election day” . The democratic political system in the United States was initially made to benefit a small group of rich, white, landowning men. Over time, the voting population was expanded. However, this expansion did not necessarily make it possible for every registered voter to engage with politics. While the US claims itself to be the leader of the free world, it has hints of stealth authoritarianism, especially in this presidential administration, through their voter registration laws and electoral barriers to entry .
Despite not being able to vote during and after serving their sentence, felons are still counted as residents in the areas in which they are imprisoned instead of the communities where they are from. This oversight results in the increase of electoral power of mainly rural areas since they house the majority of prisons. As of 2016, 6.1 million incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Americans were legally denied the right to vote.
Moreover, for individuals who are or have been incarcerated for non-felony offenses, they are left feeling politically disenfranchised. While they are legally allowed to vote, they are less motivated to engage with a system that often leaves them feeling like social pariahs. Previously incarcerated individuals have a long list of requirements to meet to vote and a general lack of information regarding civil political engagement post incarceration and even during their sentences. These more covert barriers to entry for this population reflect ways in which the United States uses mass incarceration as another vehicle to suppress and weaponize voting populations.
Bachrach and Baratz claim that competition for power does not happen in a completely neutral playing field or institution. There are methods by which privileged groups consolidate and maintain their power and the United States is not free from these tactics . Since its founding, one of the US failings as a country is the fundamentally racist and discriminatory origins of its institutions. Democracies thrive with low income inequality and an active civil society. When there are large sections of the population being left out of the political process and being systematically disenfranchised socioeconomically and politically outside of the supposedly “free and fair” elections, that is a cause for concern and a threat to the fairness of the nation’s political institutions. Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.  Acemoglu, Daron & Robinson, James. 2006. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2.  Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19.  Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100(4).