THE STORY IS OFTEN TOLD of how racist Southern legislatures built democracies that excluded Black people and other people of color and women.[i] What is less well known is that this history of exclusion also took root in the North,[ii] including very deeply in New Jersey. Indeed, New Jersey was the first Northern state to restrict the vote to white men.[iii] It opposed the Emancipation Proclamation[iv] and was the last Northern state to abolish slavery.[v] And following the Civil War, New Jersey refused to ratify the Reconstruction Amendments.[vi]
It was against this historical backdrop that New Jersey further restricted access to the ballot box by denying the vote to people with criminal convictions. New Jersey first prohibited people with criminal convictions from voting when it ratified a new state Constitution in 1844,[vii] the same year it constitutionalized its restriction of the right to vote to white men.[viii]
Today, nearly 175 years later, though legal slavery has been abolished and New Jersey no longer explicitly prohibits Black people from voting, New Jersey continues to deny voting rights to people with criminal convictions.
New Jersey's law disqualifies people from voting when they are in prison, and when they are on parole or probation for a felony.[ix] Under the law, over 94,300 people[x] are denied access to the fundamental right that is the cornerstone of our democracy and “preservative of all rights.”[xi]
New Jersey denies the right to vote to more people than the total population of New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton. It denies the right to vote to more people than live in Camden, Hoboken, Montclair, and more than 150 other municipalities in New Jersey.[xii]
Over three-quarters -- almost 73,000 – of those denied the right to vote are living in the community on parole or probation.[xiii] No other state in the Northeast denies voting rights to as many people living in the community as does New Jersey.[xiv]
Today, consistent with the racist era in which it was conceived, New Jersey’s law has a devastating impact on Black political power.
Although Black people comprise just 15 percent of New Jersey's overall population,[xv] they represent, incredibly, about half of those who have lost their voting rights as a result of a criminal conviction.[xvi]
The percentage of the Black voting age population prohibited from voting in New Jersey is more than twice that of both New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.[xix] And the total number of Black people disfranchised in New Jersey is higher than the number in New York, despite the fact that New York’s Black voting age population dwarfs that of New Jersey: over 2.2 million compared to 899,227.[xx]
Indeed, owing to population increases, more Black people in New Jersey are disqualified from voting today than were prohibited from voting prior to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.[xxi]
Because the New Jersey criminal justice system is infected with pervasive racial discrimination, the state’s law imports that inequality into the political process, accomplishing what now-prohibited poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests explicitly sought to do – exclude Black people from voting.[xxii]