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Analysis

New Jersey’s Chance to Expand Democracy

The legislature is considering bills that would give the right to vote back to tens of thousands of people who have served their prison sentences.

November 20, 2019

There are more than 80,000 people on proba­tion and parole who live, work, pay taxes, and raise famil­ies in New Jersey’s communit­ies — but they can’t vote. Currently, the state deprives people of the right to vote unless they’ve completed the entirety of their proba­tion and parole. A more sens­ible policy would restore voting rights when people are in the community. And now there’s a historic oppor­tun­ity to make it happen.

Last week, a key commit­tee in the New Jersey Assembly approved a bill (A5823) that would restore the right to vote to all New Jersey­ans with prior convic­tions who are living in the community. The follow­ing day, legis­lat­ors intro­duced a compan­ion bill in the Senate (S4260).

Having enacted auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion last year, New Jersey clearly under­stands the value of an expans­ive demo­cracy that welcomes citizens to make their voices heard. But its crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment policy is out of step with the state’s values.

New Jersey’s policy of disen­fran­chising citizens with crim­inal convic­tions denies formerly incar­cer­ated people the respect and respons­ib­il­ity of full citizen­ship. Civic engage­ment is an import­ant compon­ent of healthy reentry after prison. Our communit­ies bene­fit when we encour­age return­ing citizens to see them­selves as a worthy part of the larger soci­ety. We can do that by giving them a vote and a voice.

On the other hand, when we deny people the right to vote, we tell them that their voices do not matter. That’s why both the Amer­ican Proba­tion and Parole Asso­ci­ation and the Asso­ci­ation of Parol­ing Author­it­ies Inter­na­tional have passed resol­u­tions in favor of restor­ing voting rights upon release from prison.

Support for voting rights restor­a­tion goes beyond party polit­ics because Amer­ic­ans of all polit­ical stripes believe in second chances. Sixteen states, both red and blue, plus Wash­ing­ton, DC, restore voting rights imme­di­ately upon an indi­vidu­al’s release from prison, while two states (Maine and Vermont) never take the right to vote away.

The momentum for rights restor­a­tion is build­ing nation­wide.

Nevada and Color­ado enacted policies this year to restore voting rights to those living in the community. Last Novem­ber, Flor­ida voters over­whelm­ingly passed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment that restores voting rights. Iowa and Kentucky, the last two states with perman­ent blanket disen­fran­chise­ment policies, seem poised for reform over the next year under the lead­er­ship of Repub­lican Gov. Kim Reyn­olds in Iowa and the Demo­cratic Gov.-elect Andy Beshear in Kentucky.

Across the coun­try, voters are paying atten­tion to issues of demo­cracy and getting engaged. More than 50 percent of the voting-eligible popu­la­tion cast a ballot nation­wide in the 2018 midterm elec­tions. Nation­ally, this was the highest rate of turnout in a midterm elec­tion since 1914. New Jersey voters are like­wise clam­or­ing to parti­cip­ate, with 53 percent turnout in 2018. And turnout in the state’s 2019 elec­tions was up about four points from 2015’s historic low for odd-year elec­tions.

Lawmakers have gotten the message. As of July, legis­lat­ors in 46 states intro­duced or carried over 688 bills that would expand access to the ballot. That trans­lated into 37 new laws expand­ing voting access in 21 states and DC. That is signi­fic­antly more than the number of pro-voter reforms signed at similar points in 2017 and 2015.

At the national level, the House of Repres­ent­at­ives made H.R. 1 — the For the People Act — its first piece of legis­la­tion this year. H.R. 1 is a sweep­ing pro-demo­cracy bill that includes a rights restor­a­tion policy consist­ent with New Jersey’s bill. In other words, a major­ity of the House decided that elec­tion reform and voter access — includ­ing rights restor­a­tion — would be its first order of busi­ness this congres­sional term. When Congress seems to be moving faster than the New Jersey state­house, some­thing is amiss.

A strong, vibrant demo­cracy requires the broad­est possible base of voter parti­cip­a­tion. The New Jersey legis­lature has the oppor­tun­ity to bolster it by restor­ing the vote to citizens who are already members of the community. It should join in the national trend and pass these bills before the year is out.

UPDATE 11/25/19: The New Jersey Assembly passed the bill.