N.J. Lawmakers Advance Bills to End ‘Prison Gerrymandering,’ Offer Online Voter Registration

WHYY's Joe Hernandez Reports

New Jersey lawmakers advanced separate election-related bills this week that aim to register more people to vote and change how the state draws legislative district maps.

The proposals were heard just a few weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a measure into law that gives New Jersey residents on probation and parole voting rights.

The first bill would end the practice of so-called “prison gerrymandering,” in which states count people where they are incarcerated instead of where they previously lived for the purpose of drawing electoral maps.

Aaron Greene, associate counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the practice is unfair because many prisoners are not from the cities and towns where they now sit behind bars.

“Nor are they integrated into these communities,” he said. “They are not there by choice, cannot use community services, and are denied the right to vote.”

Critics of the practice cite a report from the Sentencing Project, which found that New Jersey had the worst black-white disparity among its incarcerated population. They say that’s what makes prison gerrymandering much more harmful.

“Since New Jersey has the worst racial disparities in incarceration rates in the country, upholding prison-based gerrymandering essentially strips our communities of color of their full voting strength,” said Helen Kioukis, program associate with the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

If the proposal becomes law, New Jersey would become the seventh state to ban the practice.

The second bill would require New Jersey to let residents register to vote online, following 38 other states and Washington, D.C., which already have online voter registration systems.

Shennell McCloud, executive director of Project Ready, a community organization based in Newark, said online voter registration makes sense in an era when many people conduct much of their personal business online.

“Currently New Jersey residents can pay their bills and their taxes online, they can renew their driver’s license online, and they can order just about anything online from clothing to groceries,” McCloud said, “but they cannot exercise one of their basic rights as citizens of this country by registering to vote online.”

A fiscal estimate for identical legislation passed by the state Senate in 2018 suggested it would cost New Jersey $350,000 to set up an online voter registration system.

Both bills, which were passed by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday, now head to the full house for a vote.

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