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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.