By Erin Delmore
“It’s my right as a U.S. citizen to be able to vote and that’s something that has essentially been stolen from me,” said Randy Vargas.
Vargas lives in New Jersey. He works and studies at Rutgers-Newark and he pays taxes. But he can’t vote.
“I’ve realized that since I’m going to be on parole until 2021, that I will not be able to participate in a presidential election until 2024,” he said.
Vargas was 20 when he began serving 10 years in prison for armed robbery. Now, he’s spent a third of his life behind bars. It’ll be almost half his life by the time he’s off parole.
And according to New Jersey’s laws, that’s when he’ll be eligible to vote again. Vargas is one of more than 90,000 New Jerseyans barred from the polls this election season, one of more than 6 million across the country, who can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow people to vote while they’re behind bars. Fourteen states restore a felon’s right to vote once he or she has served the sentence, but 22 states — including New Jersey — continue to block people on probation or parole. In a dozen states, that ban could last a lifetime.
“It makes people feel as though they’re sub-citizens,” Vargas said.
“We now have seven times as many people in prison as we did in 1970. Then that translates into disenfranchisement and we have a record number of people who are barred from the ballot box,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.
“We’re the only nation that really disenfranchises a large class of individuals beyond the period of their sentence. … Around the globe most of the debate is whether prisoners should be able to vote,” said Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota.
A majority of the disenfranchised here in New Jersey and around the country aren’t behind bars. Many are concentrated in the southern states, including Florida, a swing state that determined the outcome of the 2000 election by 537 votes. On that day, 600,000 ex-felons were barred from casting a ballot.
“Most of these voices tend to be poor, they tend to be less educated and they’re simply left out of the political conversation,” Uggen said.
While the number of inmates and ex-felons on parole and probation make up 1 percent of New Jersey’s population, it’s 5 percent of the African-American community. According to The Sentencing Project, felony disenfranchisement laws affect one in 13 African-Americans but only one in 56 non-black voters.
Vargas told me, while he’s eager to get his right to vote, he doesn’t want to let the years in between go to waste.
“The fact that I can’t vote, it is unfair, but at the same time, I still don’t take for granted that we have the freedom of speech, and I still have a platform to influence others to vote,” he said.