Should convicted criminals be allowed to vote in NJ?
Under current state law, New Jersey denies people in prison, on parole or on probation the right to vote.
But an effort is underway to allow ex-cons to cast their ballot.
“This is really about the right to participate in the political process, having a criminal justice system that treats people with dignity, and racial justice,” said state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, a co-sponsor of legislation to change New Jersey’s voting law.
She stressed under the under the current system, “black residents are disproportionally denied the right to vote.”
According to a new report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, New Jersey’s voting law reduces political power of black and urban communities.
“Despite being only about 15 percent of the state’s population, black people make up about half of those denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction,” said Scott Novakowski, an associate counsel with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the author of the report.
“This is a direct result of importing the racial disparities of the criminal justice system into the electorate.”
He noted it was back in 1844 when New Jersey broadly denied the right to vote based on a criminal conviction.
“This report provides an important historical context of the history of New Jersey’s law that denies people with criminal convictions the right to vote, but it also looks at the impact of this law,” he said.
“The right to vote is what makes us a democracy. The Supreme Court has famously remarked that it’s fundamental, it’s preservative of other rights.”
He noted last year more than 94,000 were denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction.
Cunningham said people who have served their time, the current law doesn’t make sense.
“Disfranchisement does nothing to rehabilitate and reintegrate people into their community,” she said.
“We must end this practice of denying the right to vote based on criminal history altogether, including for people in prison.”
Novakowski pointed out New Jersey leads the nation in having the highest racial disparities in black vs. white incarceration rates among adults and youth.
“A black adult is 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult, and a black youth is staggeringly 30 times more likely to be detained or committed than their white peer.”
He stated “a significant proportion of these disparities cannot be explained by differing rates of offending.”
“By continuing to link the fundamental right to vote with involvement in the criminal justice system, New Jersey’s law ensures that these disparities are reproduced within our electorate.”
The report finds more than 5 percent of New Jersey’s black voting age population was denied the right to vote last year, more than twice the rate of neighboring states.
He noted the 15th Amendment outlawed explicit racial discrimination in voting, “but by continuing to link the right to vote and the criminal justice system known to be rife with racial disparities, we’re undermining the promise of that amendment.”
State Sen. Ron Rice D-Essex, is co-sponsoring the legislation.
“Denying the right to vote for those with criminal convictions is a racial justice issue,” he said.
He said that denying people the right to vote because they have served time offers no identifiable benefit, and New Jersey has an opportunity to become a national leader for racial justice by changing the law.
Jesse Burns, the executive director of the League of Women Voters, agrees.
“We have the opportunity and responsibility to right a wrong, and restore voting rights to people with criminal convictions," she said. “When more Americans can participate in our elections, the outcome better reflects who we are as a country.”
New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said he has reservations about wholesale changes to the current law.
“If you’re still in prison or on parole, I don’t think you should be able to vote. But once you’ve finished your sentence completely and paid your debt to society, then perhaps.”
He added, “Imagine someone who’s a terrorist, serving time in jail. Should they be allowed to vote? Absolutely not.”
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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com