Advocates push to restore voting rights for convicts in and out of prison

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Micah Khan says he felt like a second-class citizen on Election Day when he came home from prison for a gun and drug conviction and until he was off parole a year later. Now, Khan, as president and CEO of the Camden nonprofit The Nehemiah Group, is among those advocating restoring voting rights to 90,000 to 100,000 New Jerseyans.

“So you’re not really in the community, you’re not really a citizen until you get that piece of paper off of you. And then once you’re sentence is completed, now they’re saying, ‘Oh, now we’re going to allow you back in to the community.’ But you should be transitioned back in to the community immediately,” Khan said.

Sens. Ron Rice and Sandra Cunningham are sponsors of the voting rights restoration bill.

“We incarcerate people but we don’t rehabilitate people,” Cunningham said. “We have them sit in jail and be warehoused and treated with total disrespect.”

Restoring, or giving, voting rights to those on parole and probation was already a tough sell in New Jersey. That bill was thrown out. The new bill that replaces it does include probation, parole, but also includes those still serving time in prison.

Republican Sen. Samuel Thompson told NJTV News he could support voting rights for those released from prison. But, convicts still behind bars?

“The punishment goes with the crime,” Thompson said in a statement.

The Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee heard overwhelming support for the bill, including from former law enforcers. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice launched a campaign “1844 No More”, referring to when the state outlawed convicts voting.

“We have an opportunity as a state to serve as a national bright light in building an inclusive democracy. And to do that we must erase the stain on our democracy,” said New Jersey Institute for Social Justice President and CEO Ryan Haygood.

“What is democracy if you don’t have the right to vote,” said Ron Pierce, a fellow of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “To strip an individual of their fundamental right to vote is to deny that individual their personhood. Ancient Greeks called it civic debt. To vote has value to the soul. It beings a connectiveness with it.”

In November, with 65 percent of the vote, Florida gave voting rights to nearly a million and a half former felons, except for murder and sex offenses.

“If they can get it done in Florida, God knows we should be able to get it done here in New Jersey,” said Richard Smith, president of the New Jersey NAACP.

“All of the members of this committee should have ample confidence that a diverse group of voters do not believe this to be a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s rather an issue of forgiveness and second chances,” said Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, Myrna Perez.

One election law scholar says criminal convictions disenfranchise more than 6 million Americans — a historic high.

“There’s no rationale for it when we think about the four conventional purposes of punishment,” said Eugene Mazo, Rutgers University Law School professor.

The committee took no vote on legislation that could follow in the footsteps of other states and increase New Jersey’s pool of eligible voters.