When a prison door slams shut, it closes off the right to vote for convicted felons in New Jersey. They can’t cast a ballot again until after they complete parole or probation. It happened to Ronald Pierce who did prison time.
“To strip an individual of their fundamental rights to vote is to deny the individual their personhood … To vote has value to the soul,” he said.
Pierce now interns for New Jersey’s Institute for Social Justice, which on Thursday published a study called, “1844 No More,” a reference to the date New Jersey barred felons from voting. It shows 94,000 New Jerseyans can’t vote because of a felony conviction and it has racial implications because about half of them are African-American.
“We’re silencing a significant segment of the population. In 2016, a little over five percent of New Jersey’s black, voting age population was denied the right to vote,” said Scott Novakowski, the report’s author and associate counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
One reason is that in New Jersey, black adults are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
“We look at felonies and people in prison. The majority of those folks in prison are black folks. And so it kind of goes in line with some of the old Jim Crow laws,” said state Sen. Ronald Rice, who chairs New Jersey’s Legislative Black Caucus.
“And that is really unfortunate. You know, the right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right. That means, people shouldn’t lose it, no matter what. And New Jersey falls under the category of states that actually disenfranchises people proactively based on criminal conviction,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, let prisoners vote. Fourteen states restore voting rights when prisoners are released. New Jersey’s among the 22 states that restore voting rights after probation and/or when parole is completed. The rest set the bar even higher. Advocates say it’s time to update New Jersey’s law, which predates the Civil War.
“The political ramifications have always been racial, in many cases, whether people like to admit it or not. I tell it like it is. I know what I see. I know what I hear. I know what I know,” said Rice.
Rice says he will introduce a bill to restore voting rights for New Jersey felons. The study agrees, and says, denying people the right to vote doesn’t deter crime. Voting can actually help them re-enter society.
“It brings a connectedness with it. For people who are incarcerated, voting has the potential to be an effective means of rehabilitation,” said Pierce.
Rice says he’s putting his colleagues on notice and that he is determined to get this bill through the legislature. He feels, if it gets to Phil Murphy’s desk next year, the governor would sign it.