Time’s Up: Let’s Flush an Ancient Law With Racist Origins

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board Writes

An archaic state law deprives thousands of New Jerseyans the right to vote, because a few men from the Whig party in 1844 decided that the loss of freedom alone was an inadequate punishment for horse stealing or moral turpitude.

The penalty still applies to people on parole and probation. Repeat: People who have already served their sentences or people who have never even seen the inside of a jail are still disenfranchised in New Jersey.

These are people who live in our towns, pay taxes, raise families, yet they are deprived of a fundamental civil right — all because of a law that passed 175 years ago and enflamed by Jim Crow and the mass incarceration of racist drug laws.

The impact is appalling: In New Jersey, African Americans represent more than half of those who have lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction, even though they comprise only 15 percent of our population.

The remedy for this national embarrassment begins today, when the Assembly votes on a bill that will restore the voting rights for New Jerseyans on parole and probation.

If this bill endorsed by Gov. Murphy becomes law — sponsor Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) expects a vote in her chamber in the next few weeks — it will restore the vote for 83,000 people who have had a criminal conviction.

Let’s remember that New Jersey is not exactly a progressive trendsetter here: Nineteen states allow felons on parole and probation to vote — including Montana and Utah — and our state has as many disenfranchised as New York, Connecticut, and Delaware combined.

In our long history of voting rights and voting wrongs, it’s time to right this wrong.

What is true here is true nationally: The racist roots of disenfranchisement laws still endure today, as blacks are four times more likely to lose their right to vote, according to The Sentencing Project.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), another sponsor, said it right: “Withholding the right to vote from people who have served their time and paid their dues is contrary to what we believe about rehabilitation,” he said. “The idea is to reintegrate people into their communities, and that requires restoration of the right to political participation as soon as people leave prison.”

Unlike Maine and Vermont, New Jersey’s incarcerated population will continue to be disenfranchised.

But once inmates are deemed safe enough to return to society, they should be trusted to fill out a ballot.

They do not deserve to be rendered mute in the mighty chorus of democracy, or subjected to taxation without representation, or reduced to second-class citizenship.

Critics of this bill might be comfortable that someone on probation for writing a bad check is sentenced to civil death. But as Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “The ballot is the democratic system’s coin of the realm. To condition its exercise on support of the established order is to debase that currency beyond recognition.”

Put another way: To deny the right to vote based on some arbitrary judgment of moral worthiness is wholly inconsistent with the American creed that human dignity is at the heart of democracy.

For 175 years we have denied that dignity for too many free New Jerseyans. The chance to restore it, at long last, must not be wasted in the Assembly today. This vote counts.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.