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Beyond Elections: Abolitionist Lessons for the Law of Democracy

The prison abolition movement, building on a long history of abolition in the United States, is articulating a vision of democracy that centers the lived experiences of people, particularly marginalized communities. Requiring more than legal standing and a secure right to vote, the abolitionist view of democracy calls for economic and civic standing, community self-determination, and equality. This view starkly contrasts with the dominant concept of democracy in the legal field most attentive to democratic concerns—the law of democracy, which defines democracy largely according to electoral rules and processes. This Comment presents an initial comparison of these two visions of democracy. When considered together, the abolitionist concept of democracy reveals the insufficiency of formalistic approaches to build a democracy that is deep, just, and experienced as legitimate by the governed. Looking to abolitionists’ concepts of state can deepen public law scholarship and inform the choices of democracy practitioners by enriching their advocacy in the electoral realm and widening their focus beyond elections.