Contributed by Amara Willey.
Here’s some welcome news for our democracy…
December marked a victory for former felons who have served their time: they received the right to vote again in New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that restores voting rights to 82,000 residents who are on probation or parole in the state. That still leaves disenfranchised about 20,000 felons who are still serving time.
The law will take effect in March in plenty of time for those affected to register to vote before the primary election. Why this is particularly good news is that a large percentage of our prison population is African American or Hispanic. Likely this is not only a victory for our democratic ideals but will also give the vote back to a number of people of color who had lost the vote when they were convicted.
“For centuries, the black community has been disproportionately affected by this voting prohibition and onerous expungement process. I am relieved that these discriminatory barriers are finally being eliminated in New Jersey,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (D), who oversees the Department of Community Affairs, in an article in The Hill last month.
Since New Jersey is a blue state, adding 80,000 voters of color probably won’t make much difference in the outcome of the national elections, though it could change the outcome of local elections in more right-leaning areas. This initiative is the latest in a national push to restore voting rights to former felons. Last year, Florida voters amended their state constitution to allow former felons to vote. Nevada and Louisiana legislatures passed similar bills this year.
Also in December, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear gave voting rights back to those who had been released from prison by executive order. Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, may follow suit.
There is no indication that restricting voting rights to convicted felons deters further crime. Quite the opposite seems to be true, that the more former criminals feel connected to the community, the lower the recidivism rate.
“In a democracy, everyone should have a voice,” the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Henal Patel, a lawyer at the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a nonprofit that led the voting-rights restoration campaign. “Tying the criminal justice system to the electorate makes no sense, and, if anything, undermines the purpose of why we have a criminal justice system.”
Gov. Murphy signed a second related bill in December that would allow former felons to have their record expunged if they haven’t committed another crime in 10 years. That law doesn’t include more egregious felonies, but it automatically seals records of low-level marijuana convictions after sentences have been served.
While this was a victory for both democratic principles and minority rights, the ACLU remains committed to restoring voting rights to those still in prison, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.