New Jersey, a state that trails most of its neighbors in terms of ensuring that all of its citizens have the right to vote, now has the opportunity to carry out such an unapologetic agenda of voting rights restoration.
Two Democratic state senators, Sandra Cunningham and Ron Rice, have said that they will introduce legislation for New Jersey to join Maine and Vermont as the only states with no felon disenfranchisement whatsoever. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned on a pledge to strengthen voting rights, should champion this far-reaching proposal and help make New Jersey a model to emulate.
The rest of the country sure needs it. Twelve states bar felons from voting even after they have completed their sentences. In Florida, more than 10 percent of the voting-age population is stripped of a voice at the polls, according to a 2016 report from the Sentencing Project. Other states, like Mississippi and Kentucky, aren’t far behind.
These 12 states’ obscene levels of disenfranchisement have prompted nationwide efforts to restore the rights of former felons. They include a ballot initiative to this effect in Florida, executive orders by Terry McAuliffe when he was the governor of Virginia and calls for federal legislation. Such reforms are essential.
But we must also restore the rights of the millions of individuals who are still serving sentences. Forty-eight states disenfranchise people who are incarcerated; 34 disenfranchise people who are out of prison but are on parole or probation.
This means that in 16 states people who are on parole or probation can already vote. Those states includes places such as Indiana and Ohio. But they do not include purportedly progressive states like California, New Jersey and Washington, which have comparatively regressive disenfranchisement rules.
These states cannot be left off the hook for the hundreds of thousands of residents whom they disenfranchise. “The moment you deprive a person of his right to a voice in the government,” Anthony warned in 1873, “you degrade him from the status of a citizen of the republic to that of a subject,” a person “helpless, powerless, bound to obey laws made by superiors.” Allowing people to vote only after completing their sentences still strips many of a political voice and undermines democratic decision-making.
True, Anthony and her fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton sought support for woman’s suffrage by distinguishing it from voting rights for “criminals.” Yet the principle underlying their advocacy — one that affirms the franchise as an unassailable element of citizenship — demands that everyone be allowed to vote.
The importance of not depriving any citizen of a voice in government becomes especially clear in light of the origins of felon disenfranchisement laws, which spread in the decades after the Civil War and have long been a central part of the arsenal with which states have tried to exclude African-Americans from politics.
Buoyed by the systematic racial biases of the criminal justice system — which mean black people are more likely to be arrested and are punished more harshly — the strategy has worked. Nationally, the disenfranchisement rate among black adults is three times that of the population as a whole.
New Jersey can lead the way in remedying this. Its disenfranchisement rate — 1.4 percent — is the highest in the Northeast after Delaware. Approximately 94,000 people (a large majority of whom are on probation) were disenfranchised as of 2016. That’s greater than the population of Trenton, the state capital.
This rate skyrockets among New Jersey’s African-Americans: 5.3 percent aren’t allowed to vote. In fact, half of all disenfranchised adults in New Jersey are African-American, even though just 13 percent of the state’s voting-age population is.
Governor Murphy has pledged to “open democracy up.” That demands that New Jersey — and the rest of the country — enfranchise all its citizens.
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