“I have been without a voice in my democracy for decades,” said parolee Ronald Pierce.
Pierce is among the estimated 94,000 men and women in New Jersey who don’t have the right to vote because of their felony convictions.
“To strip an individual of their fundamental right to vote is to deny that individual of their personhood,” said Pierce.
Pierce is among those urging New Jersey to change its law. Monday, four lawmakers said they would introduce bills to restore voting rights to those in prison, and on parole and probation.
“I’m telling you, there is no relationship between voting and committing crimes,” said Sen. Ron Rice.
One hundred forty-nine years ago, Congress approved the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote. New Jersey refused to ratify it until after it had become the law of the land.
“While we cannot change New Jersey’s past, we can direct its future,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham.
In 1844 in New Jersey, it became illegal for those with felony convictions in prison, on parole and probation, to vote. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice recently issued a report called 1844 No More. According to the President and CEO of the Institute, Ryan Haygood, the report documents New Jersey’s history of acting like a southern state at the ballot box.
“Today, we are standing here collectively to embrace this important opportunity to turn the corner on this shameful history,” said Haygood.
Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow those on parole and probation, and even incarcerated to vote. These states permit what the bills aim to do. Nineteen other states do what New Jersey does now, ban voting for those incarcerated, on probation or parole.
Opponents of the bill say this is not for New Jersey, as they seem to even ridicule the suggestion of it.
Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, calls the proposal “an absurdity.”
He says it’s OK to restore voting rights after someone finishes and fulfills his or her corrections commitment, but not before.
“And think of the unintended consequence. Prison facilities are very frequently, a lot of people. Forms of voting block. How would you like to say, ‘I want to go and talk to the mayor, oh, he’s in cell 57.’ Let’s get real,” said Cardinale.
In a room filled with a ‘who’s who’ of the state’s civil rights leadership, the bills had plenty of support.
“What public safety is protected by building barriers to the ballot box?” asked Rev. Charles Boyer of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury.
“Democracy is not working when it locks people out by locking them up,” said executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, Jesse Burns.
The bill sponsors say conversations with the governor and legislative leadership are encouraging, and they believe the law of 1844 will be no more.