Juan Haines and Kevin Sawyer are both incarcerated journalists who wrote for The Guardian about a simulated election at San Quentin prison in California. In cooperation with Solitary Watch, a non-profit which aims at documenting and advocating against solitary confinement, they helped with this mock election. Solitary Watch sent 1600 ballots to the prison by Express mail. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR, never delivered them. So they improvised and some 150 ballots were handmade and passed out and later 170 more were smuggled in with the explanation that since CDCR had not delivered the sent ballots, they had to improvise. Although there were some votes for Trump, Biden won. The ballots had a place for them to say why they were voting and why they voted for their candidate. What comes across, which is why I wanted to write about this, is that inmates are no different from ordinary people. They want to vote, want a voice in their elected officials, want to be good citizens, wan to participate. “ I want to be heard” one man wrote on the back of his makeshift ballot. Another wrote, “I’d like to feel like a citizen; feel like I am important too”. In California as in many other states people in prison and on parole cannot vote and they are still disenfranchised when they finish their sentence. The U.S. has the largest proportion of its citizens in prison, and as a whole the prison population is greater than just about any American city. Of course as the authors noted, they didn’t have to worry about violence at the polls or even social distancing, but still they were very aware that their vote would not count. Most inmates will eventually be released and be part of the society. I’m among those who believe allowing them to vote would help create a sense of belonging, of engagement with their communities and we would all benefit.
The NYT researched how each member of Congress arrived there and published a graphic which anyone can use. They compare Congress members as our unofficial aristocracy since they are in effect our ruling class. What they found is that they do not represent the average citizen. As a whole their history, opportunities, background, personal wealth, education can much differ from those of their constituents. An important conclusion they suggest is that it seems the US only has a limited number of ways to enter the halls of power. There may be some difference between Democrats and Republicans, for instance more Republicans house members were formerly in business are opposed to the number of Democrats. The implication is that one’s experience predisposes one to certain issues. In the case of those who were in business, they are more likely to be pro-business in their votes and the issues they sponsor and the type of bills they introduce. Congress members are wealthier than the average American and that too makes a difference, sometimes sponsoring legislation that benefits their own class at the expense of others.
The United States is a representative democracy, meaning that those who make decisions on behalf of the people ought to represent them. The variance that exists between citizens and their representatives has become troubling. I have not read or heard any real answer to this, but if we want our democracy to regain its vibrancy, if we want Congress to be representative of the needs and aspirations of citizens, it would seem one way to start is by electing people who are more like us. And let’s note, that means we have to vote!
The English version of the German publication Spiegel ran an editorial about the idea of the wrong majorities, of what happens when extremists win elections? Ought we to nullify their vote? In essence that would be dissolving democracy, render it meaningless. But what happens when the people vote for what is bad for them, for policies that are anti-democratic? The piece mentions the possibility of a Donald Trump victory as that of the right wing in Germany and Austria. Here is Continue reading “Democracy and Then What?”