Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla speaks in support of legislation restoring the right to vote to people who have been convicted. Institute for Social Justice

TRENTON, NJ—More people than the entire population of Trenton would gain the right to vote for the first time in over 170 years under a bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature on March 5.

The bill, S-2100, sponsored by state Senators Ronald Rice and Sandra Cunningham, grants the right to vote to persons convicted of indictable offenses who are on parole, probation or serving sentences.

The Assembly’s version of the bill, A-3456, sponsored by Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter and Cleopatra Tucker, was introduced in the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature.

Cunningham says her bill would affect over 94,000 people who lost the right to vote due to conviction.

Most of those individuals, almost 73,000, are living in the community, but cannot legally vote because they are currently on parole or probation.

The other individuals affected are currently incarcerated.  According to the bill, those inmates would be able to vote through a mail-in ballot in elections for the areas where they lived before their incarceration.

“There is no evidence that denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions serves any legitimate public safety purpose,” reads the bill. “Denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions unnecessarily burdens law enforcement, election officials, and New Jersey residents.”

Almost half of the people denied access to the right to vote are black, even though black people make up just 15% of New Jersey’s population.

New Jersey’s legislative Black Caucus and New Jersey Institute for Social Justice held a press conference on February 26 in the New Jersey Statehouse to promote the legislation.

The announcement coincided with the anniversary of the 1869 ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits states from denying the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The campaign to change the law is known as the “1844 No More” campaign because New Jersey prohibited people with criminal convictions from voting when it ratified a new state Constitution in 1844, which restricted the right to vote to white men.

Today, more black people in New Jersey are denied the right to vote due to a criminal conviction than before the 15th Amendment passed in 1870. Advocates noted that New Jersey has a severe racial disparity in its prison population despite similar offense rates between black and white residents.

Senator Rice says the bill was introduced at a press conference instead of in the Senate or Assembly because the bill was for the people of New Jersey.

The bill’s sponsors are not sure if the bill will have the support of State Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin or Governor Phil Murphy, but they said they are hopeful.

Ron Pierce, a veteran and current Rutgers student who lost the right to vote when he was convicted of a first-degree crime in 1986, says letting people in prison vote is important for rehabilitation because it gives them a voice.

Pierce mentors and teaches inmates, and said that he believes when a person engages in meaningful dialogue about civic concerns, it opens them up to seeing beyond their personal needs and shifts their focus to the effect on their community.

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who joined other elected leaders at the Statehouse press conference, said the status quo is based on laws from when slavery was still legal.

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), Amol Sinha, also spoke.  He said New Jersey is at best perpetuating an injustice from 1844 without thinking about it and at worst deliberately, systemically and willfully disenfranchising people.

Ryan Haygood, President of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, says although many people view southern states as the only places excluding black people from their civil rights, in New Jersey a black child is 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child.

A black adult is 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult, despite data showing that black and white adults and children commit crimes at the same rates, he said.

Reverend Charles Boyer said that New Jersey is one of the most progressive and also one of the most regressive states in the nation. He sees the state moving from a criminal justice system to a restorative justice system if it starts enfranchising everyone.

Cunningham says that while other states are taking away voting rights, New Jersey can be a leader in a more racially just and inclusive democracy.

The New Jersey Re-entry Corporation (NJRC), a nonprofit agency serving court-involved individuals, opened a Middlesex County “re-entry center” in New Brunswick on February 20.

Located at 57 Livingston Avenue, in the same building as New Millenium Bank and the Lazos America Unida community center, NJRC works to help this population by connecting them with opportunities for training and employment.

Reporter at New Brunswick Today | amughal@nb.today

Ayesha is an organizer with Democratic Socialists of America.