At the State House on Monday, the vote was 46 in favor, 23 against, with one abstention, for a bill that would give convicted criminals who are out on parole or probation the right to vote.
Ron Pierce, who spent 30 years in prison for murder, was among those supporting the bill.
“You have 141 collateral consequences in this country for people with felony convictions,” said Pierce, who now works for in Newark at the NJ Institute for Social Justice. “And I think the first process in trying to decimate them is to get the vote back, so you have a voice in the government, so you could speak your voice through your vote.”
The NJ Institute for Social Justice is spearheading a campaign called “1844 No More.”
“It was in 1844 that New Jersey both restricted voting for people with criminal convictions and made voting available only to white men,” said the institute’s president and CEO Ryan Haygood. “So we launched a statewide campaign … to build a New Jersey that is 1844 no more.”
Four members of the NJ Legislative Black Caucus were prime sponsors of the bill — with one calling it a matter of humanity.
“No one man, no one human, no one woman is perfect, but at a point in our life, when we make mistakes, which we all have, we look to that next step and say, ‘Can I get a second chance? How do I apologize? How do I make the wrong right?” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley.
But Republicans stood in opposition.
“Today we’re awarding the voting rights to those who have not completely completed their debt to society,” said Minority Leader Jon Bramnick on the party-line vote. “In addition, this is clearly not the priority of the people of the state of New Jersey.”
Gov. Murphy has said unequivocally that he will sign the bill, which now goes to the Senate.
“In order to restore them fully as humans and as part of our society, the right to vote is something that will benefit us all, and we’re all the better for it, let alone the injustices,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter.
“There is a reason we have a saying in our language that is used to denote that’s absurd. We say, ‘The inmates are running the asylum.’ This bill, literally, allows the inmates to run the asylum,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber.
Nineteen other states allow voting by parolees.
“Maine and Vermont give us a great instruction on how you can build an inclusive and robust democracy. In those states, people who are even in prison, on probabtion, parole, never lose their voting rights. They’ve been doing that since they became states,” said Haygood.
“I guess this is a new holiday in Trenton. We’re going to call it, ‘Governor Murphy’s Criminal Appreciation Day,'” said Assemblyman Harold Wirths.
Supporters of the bill argue that racial disparities in prison disproportionately hurt black people when it comes to voting.
They also argue that re-entry is helped by regaining the right to vote.
“One thing we know, studies show that voting helps to connect individuals to whole communities. Research shows that voting helps to reduce recidivism, helps to increase public safety, if what we want is a healthy democracy. If what we want is to achieve criminal justice aims. Voting is a tool that has been proven to help accomplish those goals,” said Haygood.
“Parole is part of their sentence,” said Wirths. “When they were sentenced for the crime … they weren’t put in jail because they were boy scouts and girl scouts. They went to jail because they did bad things against society.”
In another party-line vote Monday, the Assembly Monday approved a bill that provides $9.5 million for family planning, and it unanimously voted in favor of the “Move Over” law, which says that if a police officer is giving a ticket on a highway shoulder, motorists must over one lane.