Patch.com's Eric Kiefer reports
NEWARK, NJ — A wave of formerly incarcerated people in New Jersey have taken their first steps towards voting in the 2020 election.
On Tuesday, former prisoners and civil rights advocates gathered at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark to mark the rollout of a new law restoring the voting rights of New Jersey residents on probation or parole.
The law, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed in December 2019, took effect today.
During the event, people such as Ron Pierce – who hasn't been able to legally enter a voting booth in more than 30 years – filled out voter registration forms, sharing an emotional moment of having their voice returned after years of being "disenfranchised," the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) stated.
"Gov. Murphy gave me the pen he used to restore my right to vote," Pierce said. "Today, I used it to sign my voter registration form, and will finally have my voice back after 34 years of silence."
"Voting has value to the soul," Pierce said. "At this moment, my soul is soaring."
New Jersey has now joined more than a dozen other states that have acted to restore voting rights to people who have served time in prison. It may mean as many as 83,000 people on probation and parole regain the vote – nearly the population of the state's capital city, Trenton.
After the bill was signed, several Republican leaders in the state Legislature blasted the new policy, with NJGOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt calling it a "criminal Christmas."
"As Democrat politicians shower rule-breakers with privileges and sympathy, the millions of hardworking New Jersey families who do it by the book are once again left asking: Who is looking out for them?" Steinhardt questioned.
But to the law's supporters, Tuesday was a watershed moment for justice.
"Two years ago, the institute and its partners launched the 1844 No More campaign, named for the year New Jersey first denied the vote to people with criminal convictions – the same year it restricted the vote to white men in its Constitution," NJISJ members wrote. "[The law] brings New Jersey 83,000 times closer to being 1844 No More."
"This is what democracy looks like from the ground up in our communities when we don't wait for it to come to us from Washington, D.C.," NJISJ President Ryan Haygood said.
"Because I got caught up in the criminal justice system at a young age, I've never had the right to vote… never," said Antonne Henshaw, an activist and student who filled out his paperwork Tuesday.
"I've been waiting my whole life for this moment," an emotional Henshaw said. "It didn't disappoint."
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