Dem Lawmakers Move to Restore Voting Rights to New Jerseyans with Convictions

Cunningham

On February 26 at 11:00 AM, Senator Ronald L. Rice, Senator Sandra Cunningham, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice will announce the introduction of legislation to end New Jersey’s practice of denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions.

“Today is a historic day. Today is the anniversary of Congress’ approval of the 15th Amendment, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting,” said Rice, primary sponsor of the Senate bill. “But almost 150 years after its adoption a disproportionate number of Black New Jerseyans are still denied the right to vote. Our bill seeks to realize the promise of the 15th Amendment by severing the link between the fundamental right to vote and involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Joining Rice, Cunningham, Sumter, and the Institute in their call for the restoration of voting rights for people with convictions are almost 90 organizations, including the ACLU of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, the African American Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Association on Correction, and the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.  For a list of organizations that support the restoration of voting rights for people on parole, on probation, and in prison, please click here.

Cunningham, primary sponsor of the Senate bill, and Sumter, primary sponsor of the companion bill in the Assembly, urged New Jersey leaders to be bold.
“I call on Governor Murphy and my colleagues to be bold,” said the Senator. “If we are serious about criminal justice reform and access to democracy, New Jersey must guarantee the fundamental right to vote to all its citizens, whether in prison or living in the community while on parole or probation.” “New Jersey can lead the nation as a model of racial justice and inclusive democracy with the enactment of this bill,” said Assembly Majority Conference Leader Sumter. “The privilege to participate in the election process is a constitutional right afforded every American regardless of background, race, or status.  Every person of voting age should have the ability to cast their ballot without interference and without judgement of their personal history. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that we achieve the highest democratic ideal.” New Jersey enacted its first broad ban on voting by people with criminal convictions in 1844, the same year it adopted a state Constitution that restricted voting to white men and a time when slavery was still legal in New Jersey, according to the Institute’s report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote. “New Jersey’s ban on voting for people in prison, on parole, or on probation remains a moral stain on our state,” said Ryan Haygood, Institute President and CEO. “We are proud to stand here today to demand an end to this anti-democratic practice and declare that we are 1844 no more.” Mayor Ras Baraka (Newark), Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla (Hoboken), Mayor Steve Fulop (Jersey City), Mayor Adrian Mapp (Plainfield), and Mayor Michael Venezia (Bloomfield), have also declared their support for ending the state’s ban on voting for people with convictions. “As the mayor of Hoboken and as a civil rights attorney, I am proud to condemn our state’s practice of denying the right to vote to people with convictions,” said Bhalla. “The practice is undemocratic and it is unjust. It is time for New Jersey to restore the fundamental right to vote to those on parole, on probation, and in prison.” Just five counties—Essex, Camden, Hudson, Monmouth, and Ocean—are home to almost half of those removed from the rolls. Those same five counties contain 46 percent of the state’s Black population.

“This is a racial justice issue,” said Baraka. “By linking the right to vote to an institution infected with racism, we are systematically disfranchising Black voters. And it’s having a disproportionate impact on our urban areas. This is as shameful a practice as poll taxes or literacy tests.”

Although Black people comprise just 15 percent of New Jersey’s overall population, they represent, incredibly, about half of those who have lost their voting rights as a result of a criminal conviction, according to the Institute’s report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote. “Taking away the right to vote from anyone, for any reason, undermines the very notion of democracy,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “As the world’s largest jailer, with a prison system that has racial inequality as a hallmark, our government lacks moral authority to strip anyone of their electoral power. Everyone deserves to have a say in a democracy. A criminal conviction does not erase our humanity, and it should not invalidate our voice.”

Overall, 5.28 percent of New Jersey’s Black voting age population was denied the right to vote in the 2016 Presidential election, a rate over twice that of many of our neighbors in the Northeast. “Denying people the right to vote because of a criminal conviction is not only anti-democratic but it is immoral. The right to vote is a fundamental right,” added Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury. “Due, in part, to systemic racism in the criminal justice system, this fundamental right is being denied to a disproportionate number of Black New Jerseyans.”

New Jersey currently denies the right to vote to more than 94,000 people with criminal convictions—more than the total population of Trenton, the state’s capital, according to the Institute’s report.  “As a formerly incarcerated person who now leads two successful businesses and works to help people returning from prison develop job and leadership skills, I can tell you that being part of the community and having a voice in the decisions that shape that community is essential to successful rehabilitation and reentry,” said Tracey Syphax, an entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, and a White House “Champion of Change” honoree. Institute Legal Intern and Rutgers University student Ronald Pierce is denied the right to vote because he is currently on parole. “This law strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a human being,” said Pierce. “What is a democracy if you don’t have the right to vote? To strip an individual of their fundamental right to vote is to deny that individual their personhood. To vote has value to the soul.” Almost eighty organizations have signed on in support of restoring voting rights to people on parole, on probation, and in prison, including direct service organizations, student groups, the business community, the re-entry and corrections field, labor, racial justice groups, women’s organizations, and many others. “The broad support that we’ve seen from the community—almost eighty organizations in support—is a testament to how deeply New Jersey residents value the fundamental right to vote,” said Institute Associate Counsel Scott Novakowski, primary author of the Institute’s report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote. “Just as we do not deny a person the fundamental right to medical care or the right to practice their religion on account of a felony conviction, we should not deny people their fundamental democratic voice. We can, and must, do better.” “This is a matter of democracy,” said Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “By restoring the right to vote to people with convictions, this bill will help create a more inclusive democracy in New Jersey.” National organizations, including Demos, the ACLU, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have also endorsed the campaign to restore voting rights to people with convictions in New Jersey. “When more citizens are able to participate in our democracy, we strengthen our core values of justice, fairness, and inclusivity,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We applaud Senators Rice and Cunningham, and Assemblywoman Sumter, for introducing this important legislation. Criminal disfranchisement laws are rooted in the post-Civil War era, were used to prevent freed slaves from voting, and have disproportionate impact on African Americans. We urge swift passage of this legislation to ensure that all people are able to participate fully in their democracy.”

Veteran Senator Gerald Cardinale (R-39) criticized the proposal.

“People who are serving prison sentences for breaking the law are subject to a loss of certain freedoms,” he said. “That’s part of the risk they assume when they break the law, and part of the incentive structure for people to follow the law. Do we really believe that murderers and rapists who are serving prison sentences should be allowed to influence elections and public policy? We shouldn’t trust people who have demonstrated such bad judgment that they are removed from society with the responsibility that comes with voting.

“Let’s not forget that we restore voting rights once a person has paid their debt to society and proven themselves to be trustworthy following parole or probation,” Cardinale added. “Our current system is reasonable, and it works.”

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