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Should New Jersey Give the Vote to Convicted Felons?

One of the earliest civil rights decisions the new governor is likely to face is whether to award felons the right to vote — whether they’re in prison, on parole, or on probation

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The first civil rights legislation to reach Phil Murphy’s desk once he becomes governor may be a bill that will give convicted felons the right to vote, whether they are on parole, probation, or in prison. As it stands now, only those who complete the terms of their probation are allowed to register to vote. That amounts to over 94,300 people in the state, according to the Institute for Social Justice.

Given Murphy’s position as an advocate for social justice, it is likely he will support such a bill. State Sens. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) have announced plans to propose new legislation that does just that at the start of the administration.

Racist roots

According to a a report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, denying convicted felons the right to vote has its roots in what it calls racist laws tightly wound into the foundation of the state. New Jersey first prohibited people with criminal convictions from voting when it ratified a new state Constitution in 1844, the same year it restricted the right to vote to white men. Slavery was still legal at this time.

What’s more, aspects of that law have carried forward into 2017, making New Jersey an outlier when compared to neighboring states. The report notes that no other state in the Northeast denies voting rights to as many people living in the community — meaning those out of prison and serving parole or probation — as does New Jersey.

Scott Novakowski, ISJ associate counsel and the primary author of the report, says “the impact of this archaic anti-democratic law is felt disproportionately in our urban areas.” He adds that although they make up 15 percent of the state’s population, African-Americans make up about half of those denied the right to vote due to a criminal conviction. “This is a direct result of importing racial disparities of the criminal justice system” into the election system, Novakowski says.

Advocates like Novakowski claim the New Jersey criminal justice system is imbued “with pervasive racial discrimination” and disproportionately impacts black New Jerseyans by effectively keeping them from voting.

New Jersey leads the nation in the racial disparity in black/white incarceration rates for both adults and youth, according to the ISJ report. A black adult in New Jersey is 12 times more likely than a white adult to be incarcerated, which is more than double the national ratio of 5:1.

Rice, who was born in segregated Richmond, VA, says “New Jersey can no longer make voting rights dependent on involvement in the criminal justice system, a system infected with racism.” A report by the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey recently came to the same conclusion.

The numbers reflect this reality. As it stands, due to population increases, more African-Americans in New Jersey are disqualified from voting today than were kept from voting prior to the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibits the denial of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Free African-Americans in New Jersey had full voting rights as early as 1776; however, in 1807, the state passed a law limiting voting rights to only white male citizens over 21 making New Jersey the first state in the Northeast to create such a restriction. That law was then carried over into the 1844 Constitution, which went further and banned anyone from voting who had been convicted of a crime claiming an intention to “maintain the purity” of elections, according to the ISJ report.

Those 1844 laws stood until 1970 when a federal court ruled in Stephens v. Yeomans that the list of crimes written in 1844 — which included such offenses as murder, larceny, polygamy, sodomy, and piracy — were “totally irrational.”

In response, New Jersey broadened the law in 1971 so that those convicted of any crime would be unable to vote. This ruling came just as incarceration numbers shot up during the War on Drugs era.

Why now?

Advocates say preventing those with a criminal record from exercising their right to vote is actively hampering the political process and excluding people of color from participating in democracy. With issues of race and representation front and center in the national spotlight, voting rights for minority groups are being closely examined and reformed.

Many are pointing to the special election in Alabama this week as evidence of the rising power and political activism at the heart of many African-American communities.

According to exit poll data, black men and women made up 29 percent of the electorate and overwhelmingly voted for the Democrat, Doug Jones, pushing the candidate to victory.

Ryan P. Haygood, ISJ’s president and CEO, says by denying many in the black community the right to vote, New Jersey is embedding structural inequality more deeply into our democracy.

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According to the report, New Jersey denies the right to vote to more people than the total population of Trenton. Put another way, that’s the same amount of people as reside in Camden, Hoboken and Montclair. Undeniably, those numbers could shift an election.

Consequences for their actions?

Those opposed to allowing convicted felons voting rights often argue that they have committed crimes against society resulting in their imprisonment and therefore are rightly denied the ability to participate.

Rice disagrees with this argument. He says “you’re not going to deter someone from committing a crime based on restricting their right to vote.”

Likewise, Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, says there’s really no public-safety rationale for denying people the right to vote. He points out that while in prison, people are not denied basic rights such as the right to counsel, right to practice their religion, and right to healthcare. He says the constitutional right to participate in democracy should be treated the same.

What’s more, supporters of the new legislation say allowing prisoners to vote actually helps integrate them back into the community and instills positive attitudes toward government overall.

Ron Pierce, an intern at ISJ and Rutgers student who has been denied his right to vote after a murder conviction, says that “citizen engagement is the fundamental principle necessary for a healthy democracy and “no one is exempt from their duties to their fellow citizen.”

He says “when a person engages in meaningful dialogue of civic concerns it opens them up to seeing past their individual needs.”

What happens next?

The proposed legislation, while not written, has support from the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, The Sentencing Project, and the Brennan Center for Justice. Rice says he is optimistic that Gov.-elect Murphy will sign it into law.

“We have a governor who understands civil rights. We have to get it to his desk,” Rice says. He adds that he thinks Senate President Steve Sweeney will also be supportive.

Cunningham says “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Legislature and Gov.-elect Murphy to make New Jersey a national leader in strengthening our democracy and advancing racial justice.”

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