Patch.com's Eric Kiefer Reports
ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The right to vote is "fundamental and critical" to a healthy democracy. And that also goes for people who are out of prison on parole or probation, a quartet of lawmakers from North Jersey say.
On Monday, A-5823 passed the full state Assembly by a vote of 46-23-1. If it becomes law, the bill would remove the prohibition on voting by persons on parole and/or probation convicted for an indictable federal or state offense.
The legislation is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Shavonda Sumter of District 35 (Bergen, Passaic counties), Cleopatra Tucker of District 28 (Essex), Jamel Holley of District 20 (Union) and Britnee Timberlake of District 34 (Essex, Passaic).
It now heads to the state Senate for further review.
If it becomes law, the bill would be a boon for people such as Ron Pierce, a fellow with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice who hasn't been able to vote in more than 30 years due to a criminal conviction in his past.
Now on parole, Pierce would be able to enter the ballot booth for the first time in decades if the bill passes.
"Since I was a child, participating in our democratic process has been important to me," Pierce said. "The idea of casting my first ballot in over thirty years once this bill is passed is thrilling."
Under the proposed legislation, New Jersey's law would be amended to provide for automatic restoration of voting rights upon release. State law currently provides for automatic restoration only after the completion of a sentence including periods of parole and probation.
According to the four lawmakers, the bill would eliminate the voting disqualification currently levied against the roughly 79,000 people on either probation and/or parole in New Jersey.
The bill, accordingly, also repeals statutory provisions that permit a person to challenge a voter's right to vote in an election on grounds that the voter is disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction (N.J.S.A.19:15-19); require the commissioner of registration in each county to compare voter registration records with criminal conviction records to prevent disenfranchised persons from voting and registering to vote (N.J.S.A.19:13-17): and criminalize the act of voting while disenfranchised (N.J.S.A.19:34-4).
Each of the bill's primary sponsors offered support for the proposed law:
Shavonda Sumter – "New Jersey can lead the nation as a model of racial justice and inclusive democracy with the enactment of this bill. The privilege to participate in the election process is a constitutional right afforded every American regardless of background, race or status. Every person of voting age should have the ability to cast their ballot without interference and without judgement of their personal history."
Cleopatra Tucker – "Voting is an opportunity for all residents to have their say in who leads their communities and state. No one population should be disproportionately denied their right to vote. These are outdated laws that have no place in a modern democracy."
Jamel Holley – "Withholding the right to vote from people who have served their time while incarcerated, and who have paid their dues, sends the wrong message. We need to successfully reintegrate individuals into their respective communities and that requires reinstating rights to participate in the political process as soon as they step foot outside of the horrors of the incarcerated walls."
Britnee Timberlake – "The story of mass incarceration and disproportionate disenfranchisement in America can no longer be the narrative for New Jersey. People with criminal records face enough trials post-incarceration in searching for employment, paying down debt and reconnecting with their families. Ending the prohibition on voting for probationers and parolees gives them a chance to move forward, to have their voices heard."
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However, some Republican members of the Assembly blasted the bill, including Jon Bramnick of District 21 (Morris, Somerset, Union counties), Hal Wirths of District 24 (Morris, Sussex and Warren), Jay Webber of District 26 (Essex, Morris and Passaic) and Betty Lou DeCroce of District 26 (Essex, Morris and Passaic).
Despite Republicans' criticism of the bill, some civil rights groups such as the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice offered enthusiastic praise for the idea of letting parolees and people on probation vote.
"Currently, the racism of the criminal justice system is directly imported into the franchise by an insidious form of voter suppression that creates voiceless ghosts of democracy in New Jersey," President and CEO Ryan Haygood said.
"As we mark 400 years since slavery arrived in America, the time has come to end that practice," Haygood added. "We look forward to the bill's passage in the Senate, and to the Governor signing it into law."
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