The campaign to let NJ prisoners vote

Genesis Obando | December 22, 2020 | NJ Decides 2021, Politics
New Jersey restored the voting rights of people on probation and parole. Advocates say current prisoners should be able to vote
Credit: Ryan Haygood, NJISJ
Nov. 3, 2020: Tia Ryans, ballot in hand, gets ready to vote.

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Tia Ryans voted for the first time on Nov. 3 after losing her right to vote when she was incarcerated.

She remembers feeling nervous but thrilled to be standing in line on Election Day to cast her ballot. For years, she felt society and laws that stripped people of their right to vote were silencing her.

“When I voted, I was really excited,” said Ryans. “It’s now in my personal history book, getting the right to vote.”

Ryans is one of about 83,000 people whose voting rights were restored in 2019 after New Jersey passed a law that allowed people on probation and parole to vote. In 1844, New Jersey took away voting rights for anyone convicted of a crime.

Although she is excited that thousands get to vote again, Ryans and other activists are pushing to restore the same rights for eligible people in New Jersey’s incarcerated population of more than 18,000.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Delaware-New Jersey chapter of the National Lawyers Guild are trying to bring public attention to the issue, noting that some in the incarcerated population were voters before they were sentenced. If they were 18 years of age or older at the time of their incarceration, were U.S. citizens and met other criteria, they would have been eligible to vote. But once in prison, their voting rights are taken away until they are released.

“They are people that are living their lives at the whims of government institutions that they have no say in influencing,” said Amol Sinha, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ.

Sinha notes that voters elect school board members and local councils and that every decision those elected officials make directly affects their community. Voters in New Jersey elect a state governor who then chooses an attorney general — and also nominates prosecutors and judges — and who plays a big role in criminal justice reform. And all the decisions those officials make directly affect the incarcerated population. On top of that, prisoners worry about the same political issues as their family and friends.

“Just because someone is incarcerated doesn’t mean they don’t have family members and interests on the outside; they certainly do and deserve a voice,” said Sinha.

Not everyone is in favor 

But the idea of letting incarcerated people vote does not sit well with everyone.

“I think that’s how it should stay; you’re incarcerated because it’s punishment,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex). “You give up some of the rights for the crimes you committed.”

Wirths was one of the Assembly members who voted against the bill (A-5823/S-4260) which later passed and gave people on probation and parole the right to vote again. Wirths said he has no problem giving people voting rights after they have fully paid their debt to society, have been released and hopefully become law-abiding citizens.

Voting rights advocates believe that voting is a human right and should never be taken away as punishment.

Stanley Holdorf, supervising attorney for the National Lawyers Guild and Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network (PLAN) argues that prisoners already are active community members through the labor and education they take part in. He notes that the American public expects all former inmates to reintegrate into society but has kept them away from basic human rights, like voting.

Holdorf and other activists encourage the public to look more into the history of voter suppression to better understand the importance of criminal justice reform and of giving back incarcerated people their right to vote.

“Voter suppression has pre-Civil War roots and it’s always been used to suppress the vote of minority citizens,” said Holdorf. “If you know the history of something it can help characterize it correctly.”

Former inmates want the general public to remember that just because someone is in prison it does not make them any less of a citizen.

“I should not have the right to vote just because I’m someone that was formerly incarcerated and not currently,” said Ryans. “The fact that I am a citizen, we are citizens, is why we should have that right to vote.”