Let criminals vote in New Jersey, lawmakers and mayors urge
Members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, mayors of five cities and an alliance of social-justice groups are pushing for state officials to consider letting people vote while they serve criminal sentences.
A transition committee that advised Gov. Phil Murphy on justice issues recommended restoring voting rights to around 73,000 people on probation or parole, but it didn’t address the issue of the more than 21,000 people currently in prison or jail.
The bill being proposed in Trenton would cover all three groups of people.
“This is very progressive,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic. “It’s a step towards eradicating outdated laws that have no place in a modern democracy.”
New Jersey hasn’t allowed people with criminal convictions to vote since 1844. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow state prison inmates to vote.
Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said it’s insufficient to leave out inmates. She said restoring voting rights to all people with convictions would finally implement the 15th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting and was ratified after the Civil War.
“New Jersey initially refused to ratify the amendment. Refused,” Cunningham said. “We’re still refusing 150 years later. We haven’t grown at all.”
Cunningham says 5 percent of black voting-age residents in New Jersey couldn’t vote in 2016 because of a conviction. Ryan Haygood of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice said blacks account for 15 percent of the state’s population but nearly 50 percent of those with convictions who can’t vote.
“No one should lose their fundamental right, that right that is sacred, that right that is precious, because of a criminal conviction,” Haygood said.
“Democracy is not working when we lock people out by locking them up,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “Democracy is not working when oppression is written into law and when communities of color are robbed of their rightful political power.”
Sumter sponsors the Assembly version of the bill, A3456, which will be formally introduced March 5. Cunningham and Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, sponsor the Senate version, S2100.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, said it would be best to keep the system that’s now in place, letting people regain their right to vote when their sentence is done.
“It’s an unwise idea,” Cardinale said. “Voting is how we affect public policy. I don’t believe that the average constituent of mine thinks that people in prison ought to be setting public policy for the state of New Jersey. They can also become voting blocs and have an inordinate amount of impact on even local elections.
“It’s just a very crazy idea,” Cardinale said. “We don’t call it the Department of Prisons. We call it the Department of Corrections. They serve their time, and theoretically they will be correcting their life during the term of their sentence. When they correct their life, we allow them to vote again. I think our present system is a good one. We shouldn’t tamper with it.”
Rice said there’s no relationship between voting and committing crimes.
“There’s no one that’s going to rob a bank or break into a house that if I said, ‘You do that again, I’m taking away your voting rights’ that’s going to be deterred,” Rice said. “There’s no one that says, ‘I’m going to be a better person if in fact you take away my rights.’”
“What justice does it serve by keeping someone from the right to vote?” said Rev. Charles Boyer of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury. “What public safety is protected by building barriers to the ballot box?”
Prison inmates would vote at their home address by absentee ballot, not as a resident of the municipality where the prison is located.
“We permit people to retain other fundamental rights while incarcerated, and handing out absentee ballots should be the easiest accommodation we can make,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla said 16 states allow people on probation or parole to vote.
Bhalla is joined in support of the effort by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp and Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia.