The last time I cast a ballot was in 1985, when Tom Kean became governor. As a result of poor choices, I went to prison. After more than 30 years, I was released in 2016, and am now on parole. Under New Jersey’s law that denies the right to vote to people with criminal convictions, I have been without a voice in our democracy for decades.
I recently graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University; I am a former intern with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and I am a veteran of the armed forces. Though I have been without a voice for 30 years, voting and civic engagement have always been important to me. I voted in nearly every election until I was no longer allowed by law to do so. I was raised to understand civic engagement as the fundamental principle necessary for a healthy democracy, and that no one is exempt from their duties to their communities.
The importance of civic engagement remains with me today. I do volunteer work that includes mentoring and counseling other people who have been released from prison to help them adjust to life outside the prison walls. I have participated on expert panels that work to address barriers to re-entry. I take my civic duties seriously, and I consider voting a fundamental responsibility of democracy.
New Jersey currently denies the right to vote to anyone serving a sentence for a felony conviction, including people in prison, on parole, or on probation. In 2016, nearly 100,000 people were prohibited from exercising this most fundamental right of citizenship. This law strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a human being. 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. Ancient Greeks called it civic death. To vote has value to the soul. It brings a connectedness with it.
Earlier this year, I stood with Sens. Ronald L. Rice and Sandra Cunningham and Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter and Cleopatra Tucker, along with my colleagues from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and our partners from across the state to announce the introduction of historic legislation (S-2100/A-3456) that would end disfranchisement for people with convictions in New Jersey. It will restore voting rights to all people with convictions — in prison, on parole, and on probation.
Rehabilitation by ballot
For people who are incarcerated, voting has proven to be an effective means of rehabilitation. When a person engages in meaningful dialogue about civic concerns, it opens them up to seeing beyond their personal needs and shifts their focus to issues that affect the community. I saw this transformation occur in the students in my political science class in prison.
People with criminal convictions and people in prison do not forfeit their fundamental rights. We do not prohibit a person from practicing their religion because they are incarcerated. And we do not parse out fundamental rights based on the type of offense for which someone was convicted. We do not deny a person medical care, for instance, because they were convicted of murder as opposed to a drug offense.
In my service to my country, I protected this fundamental right of democracy, the very same right I am now denied. I call on the New Jersey Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy to support S-2100/A-3456. We must end this antidemocratic practice and restore the right to vote to the nearly 100,000 people in prison, on parole, or on probation in New Jersey.
I tell those who I was incarcerated with, who are still imprisoned, that I will not forget about them and I will fight for them. This is what I stand up for — the rights of those not only silenced, but buried beyond visibility.
I look forward to the day when I can again walk proudly into a voting booth, cast my ballot, and stand side by side with my fellow community members knowing that my voice matters. But it will not just be my voice that will be valued, that will be heard. It will be the voices of those who have been silenced for far too long — the voices of those living in prison, on parole, or on probation.
Let us vote. Our democracy demands it.