In New Jersey, 94,000 people can’t vote — because the state constitution in 1844 outlawed voting for people in prison, on probation or on parole.
That prohibition has met with little public resistance; poll after poll shows that most Americans don’t like the idea of a convicted murderer or serial rapist getting a say in who is elected as the county sheriff, or where to build the next elementary school in town.
But a group of progressives across the state say not all felons are monsters, and that disenfranchising them is an affront to democracy.
Senator Sandra Cunningham is one of several African-American legislators in Trenton sponsoring a bill to enfranchise convicts. She said allowing felons to vote encourages rehabilitation, while denying them the right works against it.
“The most important thing you can do for a person who has been incarcerated or who is sitting in jail now is treat them with a little bit of respect,” Cunningham told fellow legislators during a hearing on her proposal. Taking away the right to vote "does not help or resolve the problem. That brings upon feelings of apathy, feelings of sadness — depression, but nothing in a positive way that will help these people when they come out of jail to take their place in society.”
The issue got attention in April when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democrat who is running for President, said the right to vote is so critical, even incarcerated felons — like the Boston bomber — should be able to cast a ballot from behind the prison walls.
“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people,” said Sanders during a CNN town hall. “Once you start chipping away and you say well that guy committed a terrible crime, not gonna let him vote, or that person did that, not gonna let that person vote, you’re running down a slippery slope.”
Henal Patel is associate counsel at the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which is leading the campaign to grant voting rights to felons. The Institute’s campaign focuses on the year 1844, when the state constitution limited voting to white men and denied voting rights to convicted criminals. Patel said black people have been hurt most by that exclusion.
“When we look at the actual racial disparity it’s unbelievable … almost a hundred thousand people in New Jersey can’t vote because of these laws … and of the total number, half of the people who can’t vote are black,” she said. “In New Jersey, black people only make up 15 percent of our population.”
Patel says that of the 94 thousand who can’t vote, only 19 thousand are actually behind bars. The others are on probation or parole, like 27-year-old Mark Hopkins. Hopkins graduated from Rutgers University in May with a degree in labor and employee relations. This summer he will start work as an associate researcher with the Sentencing Project based at Rutgers Law School in Camden, his hometown.
He still has childhood memories of growing up in poverty and getting bullied for his dark skin. He also remembers being in a park in Camden more than a decade ago when he and his friends violently assaulted a homeless man. The man died in the hospital weeks later. Hopkins pleaded guilty to manslaughter and went to prison for nine years. He was released in 2017 and is on parole until 2022, meaning he cannot vote until then.
He said there is a cost to inner cities where a high number of residents could be on parole or probation.
“They don’t have any political or electoral power in their own community,” he said during an interview in New Brunswick. “When that happens, then someone else does. And, the people that do have it now are able to charge rent prices higher. They’re able to change the education system and turn it to charter schools. They’re able to cheapen the education. You have these structural damages that will be done where people who live there have no power to do something about it."
But for others, those are the consequences of committing a crime.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Republican who has represented parts of Bergen County since 1979, said he is baffled that anyone would even consider allowing felons to vote from behind bars.
"People have not thought it through," he said. "They may be murderers. They may be child rapists. You want them determining your public policy?" Cardinale also said he believes the the Democrat push for inmate voting is a strategy to gain leverage in elections.
"I think it is not lost on the people who are advocating for this that they are going to have a voting advantage as a result if they can implement this sort of policy," he said.
Supporters of the legislation hope to pass the criminal justice legislation after the November election. Hopkins won’t be able to vote in that election. But he’s hoping that in 2020 he'll be able to cast a ballot for president — for the first time.