Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously remarked that “voting is the foundation stone for political action.”[lxi] Our votes not only affirm the legitimacy of our democracy, but are also the source of the power by which elected officials are held accountable.[lxii] Our collective task in the twenty-first century is to reduce barriers to voting and to encourage more people to participate in the political process.
Rather than strengthen our democracy, however, New Jersey’s decision to deny the right to vote to people with criminal convictions deprives its most vulnerable communities of valuable voices needed to affect systemic change. Decisions are routinely made on important local issues such as school policy, taxes, employment, housing, healthcare, and policing by elected officials who are unaccountable to a wide swath of those living in their districts on parole or probation or who are incarcerated.
New Jersey can no longer condition the most fundamental democratic right on involvement in the criminal justice system, an institution infected with racism.[lxiii] The realization of the Fifteenth Amendment, and the integrity and legitimacy of our democracy, demand that New Jersey end its practice of denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions.
To create a fair, open, inclusive, and true democracy, the Institute recommends the following:
Restore Voting Rights to People with Criminal Convictions
New Jersey must put an end to the practice of denying voting rights to people with criminal convictions. The legislature should pass, and the governor should sign, legislation to restore voting rights to the almost 100,000 people currently in prison, on parole, or on probation in New Jersey. And disfranchisement must be eliminated altogether as a consequence of a criminal conviction moving forward, as is the practice in Maine, Vermont, and most European democracies.[lxiv]
Designate state corrections agencies as voter registration agencies
In addition to restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions, all efforts must be made to ensure that this right is not illusory.
New Jersey should designate agencies such as the Department of Corrections, State Parole Board, and state probation offices as voter registration agencies under state or federal law. As voter registration agencies, they would be required to notify each person of their right to vote, provide the person with a voter registration application, and provide assistance in completing the form and transmitting it to election officials.
Ensure that people in prison have meaningful access to the ballot
To ensure that all people are able to cast a ballot, New Jersey should enact policies to facilitate access to mail-in ballots for people in prison or other residential facilities.
Launch a public awareness campaign on voting rights for people with criminal convictions
The New Jersey Division of Elections should launch a broad public awareness campaign to educate New Jersey residents about the voting rights of people with criminal convictions. There is widespread confusion and misinformation, particularly among communities of color, about when a person with a conviction can register and vote. Using traditional and social media, state and local election officials should seek to inform impacted communities of their rights and proactively offer voter registration opportunities.
End Prison-Based Gerrymandering
Under New Jersey’s practice of “prison-based gerrymandering,” incarcerated people are counted as residents of the prison for the purposes of drawing legislative districts, rather than their home addresses.[lxv] The communities surrounding the prison receive disproportionate legislative representation because their districts are padded by “phantom constituents”— incarcerated people who cannot vote in the district,[lxvi] cannot access community resources, and to whom elected officials are not accountable.[lxvii] Political power, in the form of representation, is therefore transferred away from the communities from which incarcerated people come and will most likely return, and transferred to the communities that host prisons.[lxviii]