More black people in New Jersey are disenfranchised from voting today due to a criminal conviction than 150 years ago when no blacks had the right to vote here, a "moral stain" that state legislators and a coalition of advocates are hoping to change this year.
Lawmakers and more than a dozen activists announced the introduction of legislation to allow people on probation and parole and those still incarcerated to vote in all elections in the state. New Jersey has barred those convicted of serious crimes from voting until they have served their entire sentences since 1844. As a result, more than 94,000 residents, 87 percent of whom are out of jail on probation or parole, cannot vote today; that's more than the population of Trenton, Camden, or Hoboken, according to a by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. More than half of those disenfranchised, or about 47,400 people, are African-Americans — more than the population of Atlantic City.
"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, the institute's 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."
"Gov. Murphy believes that we are a better, stronger, and more representative democracy when more New Jerseyans participate," said Dan Bryan, a Murphy spokesman. "He looks forward to working with the Legislature to pass legislation that expands access to the ballot." Within hours of the press conference, one Republican senator released a statement in opposition to the bill that expressed what some think will be the greatest roadblock to the measure's enactment: Allowing people still incarcerated to vote.
"People who are serving prison sentences for breaking the law are subject to a loss of certain freedoms," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen). "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."
But Rice said the loss of voting privileges is no deterrent to crime.
"It has no relevancy," he said, adding that if the loss of the right to vote was historically supposed to punish someone, the Legislature has the ability to change that punishment. "It's a denial of a basic right. It's discriminatory in nature."
Currently, only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow those who are incarcerated to vote, according to supporters of the effort here. Sixteen states allow people to vote while on parole or probation.
Scott Novakowski, the institute's associate counsel, said research shows that taking away a person's right to vote hinders his rehabilitation. One, for example, found the people released in states that permanently disenfranchise those convicted of crimes are about 19 percent more likely to be re-arrested than those in states that restore voting rights.
"It makes no sense to stigmatize them," said Novakowski, who authored the NJISJ report titled "We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote."
But Cardinale said the current system works well and appropriately returns the right to vote once a person has "paid his debt to society."
Today, when a person is convicted of crimes ranging from marijuana possession or shoplifting more than $200 in goods to rape or murder, their name is put on a list that is circulated to the county clerks, who then remove that person from the voting rolls. Once a person has completed his sentence, including all parole and probation time, they may re-register to vote.
The legislation would restore the right to vote to all those disenfranchised at the time of its passage, and future offenders would never lose the right to vote. One supporter said those incarcerated would be able to vote by absentee ballot and would remain registered at their last address.
The legislative sponsors, who also include Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) and Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex), said they introduced the legislation on Monday because it was the anniversary of the signing of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment gave blacks the right to vote. Cunningham said New Jersey initially refused to ratify the amendment, being forced to do so when it became law in 1870.
"We are still refusing 150 years later; we have not grown at all," she said. "Many states and the federal government are moving to restrict voting rights. We can be a leader on this issue now and do the opposite."
Rice and others view restoring the vote a civil rights issue. Blacks in New Jersey are affected disproportionately by the current system because the state's prisons are the most segregated in the nation. Haygood said an African-American adult is 12 times more likely than a white adult, and a black youth is 30 times more likely than a white youth to be incarcerated in New Jersey, even though both races commit crimes at roughly the same rate.
Although black people make up just 15 percent of New Jersey's overall population, they represent about half of those who have lost their voting rights as a result of a criminal conviction, according to the NJISJ report. More than 5 percent of New Jersey's voting-age African-Americans have been denied the right to vote by the law.
"Taking away the right to vote from anyone, for any reason, undermines the very notion of democracy," said ACLU-New Jersey Executive Director Amol Sinha, calling the process "shameful."
Attending the press conference were two men who served jail time and lost the right to vote as a result. Ron Pierce, a legal intern at NJISJ and Rutgers University student, still cannot vote because he is currently on parole. He was released from prison in November of 2016 after serving more than 30 years for killing a man in a gang fight.
"This law strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a human being," said Pierce, a veteran who has not voted since 1985. "To strip an individual of their fundamental right to vote is to deny that individual their personhood. To vote has value to the soul."
"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."
The effort to change the voting law has the support of about 80 organizations. Sumter said the sponsors are going to work to try to get the legislation passed and on Murphy's desk as soon as possible.