Carceral Socialization as Voter Suppression
71 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2023 Last revised: 24 Aug 2023
Date Written: August 4, 2023
In an era of mass incarceration, many people are socialized through interactions with the carceral state. These interactions are powerful learning experiences, and by design, they are contrary to democratic citizenship. Citizenship is about belonging to a community of equals, being entitled to mutual respect and concern. Criminal punishment deliberately harms, subordinates, and stigmatizes. Encounters with the carceral system are powerful experiences of anti-democratic socialization, and they impact peoples’ sense of citizenship and trust in government. Accordingly, a large body of social science research shows that eligible voters who have carceral contact are significantly less likely to vote or to participate in politics. Hence, the carceral system’s impact on political participation goes well beyond those who are formally disenfranchised due to convictions. It also suppresses participation among the millions of legally eligible voters who have not been formally disenfranchised—people who have had more fleeting encounters with law enforcement or vicarious interactions with the carceral system.
This Article considers the implications of these findings from the perspective of voting rights law and the constitutional values underlying it. In a moment when voting rights are under siege, voting rights advocates are in a heated discussion about how our federal and state constitutions protect ideals of democratic citizenship and political equality. This discussion has largely (and for good reason) focused on how the law should address what I call “de jure” suppression: tangible election laws and policies that impose legal barriers to voting, or dilute voting power. Eliminating these formal barriers to voting is vital. But, I argue, fully realizing the constitutional values underlying voting rights will also require also addressing what I call “de facto” suppression, or suppression through socialization. This occurs not through formal legal restrictions on voting, but when state institutions like the carceral system systematically socialize citizens in a manner that is incompatible with democratic citizenship.
I show how de facto suppression threatens the constitutional interests protected by the right to vote just like de jure suppression does. In short, by systematically socializing people in a manner that is fundamentally incompatible with democratic citizenship, the state can effectively strip a citizen of much of the instrumental and intrinsic value conferred by the right to vote. Those who are concerned about advancing and protecting voting rights should understand the carceral system’s anti-democratic socialization as a form of political suppression—one that should warrant constitutional scrutiny for the same reasons that de jure suppression should warrant scrutiny.
Keywords: criminal system, voting rights, citizenship, policing, constitutional law, law and social science
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