Armed with a new state law restoring voting rights to those on parole or probation after serving a criminal sentence, the League of Women Voters is embarking on a campaign to ensure all those now eligible get registered.
“From D.C. to New Jersey neighborhoods throughout the state, our grassroots movement is shaping a more inclusive electorate,” said Nancy Hedlinger, president of the state League, at a press conference in Neptune on Wednesday.
Signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in mid-December, A-5823 provides for registration of former prisoners once they finish their custodial sentence, ending the practice of making them wait until they complete parole or probation terms to legally cast a ballot.
The campaign, which the league is undertaking in conjunction with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, is aimed at the 80,000 people currently on parole and probation. The law becomes effective in mid-March and officials said the effort would kick off at that time.
On hand at the Neptune office of the corporation was parolee Advil Robinson who said he was eager to take part in the next election.
“I’m very proud to be voting again, yes,” said the Asbury Park resident. “It gives me a very strong confidence level that I’m being a part of everything that everyone else is a part of.”
The League will work from Neptune and seven other locations across the state run by the Reentry Corporation, which helps reintegrate people released from incarceration. Many of their clients have wanted to vote but were barred under the old law.
“What made me very, very sad was that, every week when I come, I’d have three, four, maybe eight people who could not register because they’re on parole,” said Annette Scott of the League. “Some are on parole for five years.”
Representatives of the Reentry Corporation, which is led by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, say the registration effort fits right in with their mission.
“The right to vote for our clients is something that can make them whole again — something that can give them one more step toward being that productive citizen they all want to be, and that they all can be,” said Brian McGillivray, facility director for the corporation in Monmouth County.
Likewise, the League said the initiative was in keeping with its historically non-partisan nature.
“It is our goal to register everyone and to facilitate people being able to vote, no matter who they are, no matter where they live, no matter who they’re going to vote for,” said Evelyn Murphy, the League’s voters service director. “We never take a position on a party or a candidate.”
New Jersey is the 19th state to allow parolees and those on probation to vote. It took two years for advocates to pass the law, which was approved along largely partisan lines. Advocates called their campaign “1844 No More,” a reference to the year the state restricted voting rights. Only Maine and Vermont allow those in custody to cast ballots.
Proponents have portrayed the issue as a matter of civil rights.
“Nearly half of those denied the right to vote in New Jersey because of a criminal conviction are black, due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” Murphy said.
Representatives said the League is looking for volunteers to help them reach out across the state, through churches and community centers, when it kicks off the campaign on March 17.
“I’m changing it from St. Patrick’s Day to Citizens’ Registration Day,” said Scott.
State officials say the old voter registration form, with its check off box about parole and probation, will be updated.
With their rights restored as early as the middle of March, the newly registered voters could cast ballots in the state’s June 2 primary. The November election will be topped by the presidential race, and a statewide referendum on whether to legalize recreational marijuana is also planned.