The celebration was muted due to the current pandemic, but advocates and two men on parole who led a two-year battle to win back the right to vote celebrated nonetheless on Tuesday, the first day they were allowed to re-register to vote as early as the June primary.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice livestreamed the low-key event at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, as Ron Pierce and Antonne Henshaw, former prisoners, walked one after the other to a podium, signed a voter registration form and talked about their feelings on regaining the right to vote.
“Since the governor signed the bill restoring voting rights to approximately 83,000 people in New Jersey on parole and on probation, I have been counting the days down to this day, when I could use the pen the governor used to sign the legislation into law to fill out and sign my registration form, reinstating my right to vote, letting me have a meaningful say in the direction of my community, state and nation,” said Ron Pierce, an NJISJ fellow who has been denied the vote for 34 years, including after his release from prison on a murder conviction.
Three months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill giving the right to vote back to those convicted of an indictable offense and released on probation or parole. The original prohibition has its roots in the 1844 state constitution, at a time when slavery was still legal.
Battling 19th century ban
The institute launched an effort titled 1844 No More some 25 months ago to overturn that ban. They argued the issue was one of social justice, noting that the racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice and prison systems meant that blacks were disproportionately impacted by the voting ban. While 15% of the state’s population is African American, blacks made up roughly half of about 94,000 people denied the right to vote due to incarceration, probation or parole in 2017, according to NJISJ.
They wound up mostly successful in their push, as lawmakers voted primarily along party lines, with Democrats sponsoring and supporting the change.
“When my colleagues and I started the 1844 No More campaign to detach the right to vote from the racially biased criminal-justice system, I was skeptical, doubted anyone would listen,” Pierce said. “As we began speaking at engagements and to politicians, I was surprised at the support there was for our campaign. I believe the time to completely separate the criminal justice system from the franchise is at hand.”
He is referring to the coalition’s unsuccessful effort to convince lawmakers to also give the right to vote back to people while they are incarcerated. That leaves about 19,000 people currently in correctional institutions unable to vote. The institute has pledged to continue to advocate to let those in jail continue to vote.
Only two states — Maine and Vermont — do not disenfranchise adults due to a conviction. New Jersey is now one of 18 states that restores the right to vote once an inmate leaves prison. A plurality of states — 21 — have rules similar to those New Jersey formerly had and ban a person from voting until the completion of parole or parole and probation, as well as a prison term. In nine states, those convicted of serious crimes lose the right to vote forever.
Learning importance of voting
“For me to be in a position to sign this form, I never thought this would be possible,” said Henshaw, a student and activist who wound up in the criminal justice system as a juvenile and had never — until now — had the right to vote. “I never knew how important voting was until they took it from me.”
Henshaw said it is important to be able to vote “to have a say in this government and not just pay taxes and be silent,”
He said they would celebrate “as much as we possibly can,” to chuckles from the gathering of a handful of people, adding that while in the past he had weathered some dark days, “Now I stand here today in a light rather bright.”
Pierce and Henshaw are just two of the people who got the right to vote back on Tuesday. But the law does not automatically re-register individuals. They have to fill out the forms themselves. That means the institute’s work is not yet done.
NJISJ has been working with state agencies to see that all those affected by the law are notified and also will be working closely with groups that register voters to ask them to help get people registered and encourage them to vote.
“Now the work requires us to come together to ensure that everyone we know, everyone who’s on probation and parole, knows that they are now eligible to vote, that they should register and that they should vote,” said Ryan Haygood, the institute’s president and CEO. “This is what democracy looks like from the ground up in our communities.”