To draw election map, NJ may count inmates in prior hometowns
Among the bills advancing in the waning days of the legislative session are two with significant implications for elections in New Jersey.
One would end what critics call “prison-based gerrymandering” in which inmates are counted as residents of the municipality in which they are jailed, rather than in the town or city where they had been living. The other would let people register online to vote.
Helen Kioukis, a program associate for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said six states have passed laws to count prison inmates at their last home address for legislative redistricting purposes “so that when it’s time to redraw our lines through the redistricting process, it’s done so in a fair way with a fairer outcome.”
“Counting incarcerated individuals in prisons rather than at their home address skews communities’ political power and undermines the constitutional guarantee of one person, one vote,” Kioukis said.
Aaron Greene, associate counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said a person’s vote counts more if their community is home to a prison.
For instance, Greene said, Cumberland County – which is home to nearly half of New Jersey’s state prison population – has nearly 6,500 prisoners included in its population, but only 259 of them are actually from the county.
There is also a matter of racial equity involved, Greene and Kioukis said. Only 17% of Cumberland County residents are black, but 58% of those incarcerated are black, Greene said.
“Many in New Jersey’s incarcerated population are not legal residents of the communities in which they are incarcerated, nor are they integrated into those communities,” he said. “They are not there by choice. They cannot use community services and are denied the right to vote.”
The redistricting bill, which the full Senate passed last February, was advanced by the Assembly Appropriations Committee in a party-line, 7-4 vote. The one providing for online voter registration passed 8-0, with three of the panel’s four Republicans voting to abstain.
Sarah Jackel, general counsel for the national nonprofit group Vote.org, said 39 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted online voter registration over the past two decades.
“Unfortunately, the reality is New Jersey is trailing behind 80% of the rest of the country with this important modernization,” Jackel said. “And these are liberal and conservative places, rural and urban. It hasn’t been a controversial issue because quite frankly, online voter registration represents one of the most important and wide-ranging improvements for voter registration of our lifetimes.”
Jackel said online registration is cheaper, more accurate and more secure
“It meets modern voters where they are. These people, all of us, are accustomed to doing all of our affairs, including government transactions, online.”
“Currently New Jersey residents can pay their bills and their taxes online, they can renew their driver’s license online, and they can order just about anything online, from clothing to groceries,” said Shennell McCloud, executive director of Project Ready New Jersey. “But they cannot exercise one of their basic rights as citizens of this country by registering to vote online.”