Activists, former prisoners see advance as social-justice victory, since losing right to vote disproportionately affects African Americans in New Jersey
The Legislature took a major step toward extending the right to vote to people on probation and parole, when the Assembly on Monday passed a bill that does not go quite as far as advocates had hoped but would return about 80,000 New Jerseyans to the voter rolls.
It took 21 months for the effort to end New Jersey’s prohibition on voting for anyone still serving any part of a criminal sentence, which activists characterized as a civil rights issue when announcing it in February 2018. It was a newly introduced bill (A-5823) that passed during this lame duck session. Left out of that bill, and part of the original push, are those who are still incarcerated.
Still, supporters said Assembly passage by a largely party line 43-26 vote — Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling of Monmouth voted “no” — is a major social-justice victory: Loss of the right to vote due to criminal conviction disproportionately affects blacks in New Jersey. The state’s prisons are the most segregated in the nation, and African Americans make up a disproportionately large percentage of those who currently cannot vote because they are on parole, probation or in prison.
Democracy’s ‘voiceless ghosts’
Ryan P. Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice that has led the voting restoration effort, termed the present disenfranchisement “an insidious form of voter suppression that creates voiceless ghosts of democracy.” He added that in this year, which marks the 400th since the start of slavery in America, “the time has come to end that practice.”
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 removed from the voting rolls. Once a person has completed their sentence, including all parole and probation time, they may re-register to vote. The legislation would provide for automatic restoration of a person’s voting rights on release from prison or custody.
Giving the right to those still incarcerated was a long shot, since only two states — Maine and Vermont — never rescind an individual’s right to vote, even while in jail. If the Senate passes the bill and Gov. Phil Murphy signs it, as he has said he will, New Jersey would become the 17th state, as well as the District of Columbia, to allow parolees and probationers to vote.
Still, Republicans who spoke on the floor against the measure complained that everyone should have to fulfill all sentencing conditions, including the completion of parole and probation, before their right to vote is restored, or in the case of those who were convicted as juveniles, before they get to cast their first ballots.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) termed the Democrats pushing of this bill, as well as prison reforms that would make it easier for nonviolent offenders to be paroled and allow more inmates to take college classes by making them eligible for state financial aid, as lacking “basic common sense and fairness.” He said giving parolees and probationers the vote “literally allows the inmates to run the asylum” because they would have a say in appropriating funds for corrections purposes.
“It’s not fair for the people who obey the laws, stay out of jail, pay taxes, to have their votes diluted by those who did not follow the rules,” Webber said.
Restoring dignity of former prisoners
Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), one of the sponsors of the bill, said no one is perfect and the measure helps restore the dignity of those who have made mistakes and are looking to put their lives back in order.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), another sponsor, said giving people back the right to vote is important “in order to restore them fully as humans.”
One of those who has been disenfranchised, Ron Pierce, sat next to Holley on the floor of the Assembly during the debate and vote. On parole, he has been unable to vote for more than 30 years.
“The idea of casting my first ballot in over 30 years once this bill is passed is thrilling,” he said.
Cheering from Assembly gallery
Another group of supporters, including others currently unable to vote, sat in the Assembly gallery filming the action on their cell phones, tweeting out updates and cheering when it passed. They vowed to keep fighting until they also win the right to vote for those still incarcerated.
“Final passage of this bill will bring us 83,000 times closer to the day when New Jersey joins states like Maine and Vermont and becomes a robust and inclusive democracy that does not silence people with criminal convictions,” said Henal Patel, NJISJ associate counsel. “As we celebrate today’s momentous step forward … we will continue the fight to restore the vote to the 19,000 people in prison who are not included in this legislation.”
The Assembly passed three other measures to assist those incarcerated:
- A-5816 would decrease the penalty for technical parole violations for adult parolees.
- A-1986/S-761, known as Earn Your Way Out, would require the state Department of Corrections to develop re-entry plans for inmates to ease their transition out of prison and also establish a presumption of parole for nonviolent offenders who haven’t committed any serious infractions for at least two years and meet other criteria.
- A-3722/S-2055 would allow prisoners to get state financial aid and take college classes while still incarcerated.
The latter two bills are on their way to the governor’s desk. The financial aid bill proved most controversial, passing with a minimum 41 “yes” votes as a number of Democrats in competitive legislative districts voted against spending additional state funds to allow inmates to take classes. At most, the bill would cost the state less than $1 million a year, according to a nonpartisan fiscal estimate.
Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex), a former state labor commissioner, spoke in opposition to the financial aid extension but said all the measures show the Democrats’ goals are out of sync with those of the public.
“I think some of our priorities are screwed up today,” he said. “It’s prisoner appreciation day … It’s just sad.”