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Dear Governor Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin:
We write to ask that you stand with us and take all necessary actions to end New Jersey’s practice of denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions.
New Jersey currently denies the right to vote to more than 94,000 people serving a sentence for a felony conviction, including people in prison, on parole, and on probation—more people than live in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital city, Camden, Hoboken, Montclair, or over 150 other cities in New Jersey.
Three-quarters of those who have currently lost their voting rights—or 70,000 people—are living in the community while completing a term of parole or probation. New Jersey denies the right to vote to more people with criminal convictions who are living in the community than any other state in the Northeast.
New Jersey first denied voting rights based on criminal convictions in 1844, the same year its constitution restricted the right to vote to white men only.
More than a century and a half later, New Jersey’s law accomplishes the very racial exclusion that was prevalent in 1844, and that was meant to be eradicated by the Fifteenth Amendment, which guarantees that the right to vote cannot be denied on account of race.
Incredibly, today, about half of all disfranchised people in our state are Black, even though Black people make up only about 15 percent of New Jersey’s population. In all, over five percent of New Jersey’s Black voting-age population is denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction, leading to a significant reduction in Black voting power.
In fact, owing to population increases, the number of Black residents currently denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction greatly surpasses the number of Black people in New Jersey who were prohibited from voting in the decades prior to the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment.
A quarter of those removed from the voter rolls because of a criminal conviction are from Essex and Camden Counties. Just five counties—Essex, Camden, Hudson, Monmouth, and Ocean—are home to almost half of those removed from the rolls. Those same five counties contain 46 percent of the state’s Black population.
These disparities exist because New Jersey’s law ties the right to vote—one of the most fundamental of rights—to a criminal justice system infected with racial discrimination. New Jersey has the shameful distinction of having the highest disparity in Black/white incarceration rates in the nation for both adults and youth—12:1 and more than 30:1, respectively.
Finally, New Jersey’s law serves no legitimate public safety or criminal justice interest. In fact, because voting helps to facilitate rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, New Jersey’s law actually undermines these interests.
It is time for New Jersey to sever the link between voting rights and criminal convictions. New Jersey must eliminate loss of voting rights as a consequence of a criminal conviction and restore voting rights to the 94,000 people in prison, on parole, and on probation who are denied access to the fundamental right that, as the Supreme Court has explained, is preservative of all other rights.
We ask you to join us in taking the steps necessary to erase this moral stain on our democracy. The integrity and legitimacy of our democracy demand an end to this antidemocratic practice.
We are 1844 no more. Let us vote.