Whether it’s the monied bail system, the corruption of officers and prosecutors, or the financial interests of for-profit prisons, there are economic and institutional powers that require a consistent flow of offenders and non-offenders to be put behind bars and forever marred by the label “convict.” At the moment, a plurality of states disenfranchise citizens, sometimes for life, due to their criminal history. We would contend that the least we can do, as a nation, is fully accept these citizens back into society upon their release– and that includes restoring their voting rights.
As of today, there are 14 states and the District of Columbia that remove voting rights from prisoners while incarcerated, then return them after release. In 22 other states, felons cannot vote while incarcerated, or also while on probation and/or parole. Their rights are returned after this period, and after any restitution fees or fines accrued are paid. However, in 12 states felons either lose their right to vote indefinitely, require a governor’s pardon, or withstand an additional waiting period after parole and/or probation.
New Jersey is attempting to join just two other states in not disenfranchising felons in the first place. Rather, the Garden State wants citizens convicted of crimes to remain enfranchised throughout serving their sentence. Prisoners would vote by mail, and would be considered voters in the district they lived in before incarceration. The legislation was introduced February 26 by Democratic state representatives, and could restore voting rights to almost 100,000 people.
Scott Novakowski, associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, put it simply: “At the end of the day, voting is a fundamental right. The very idea of a fundamental right is that you don’t lose your fundamental rights if you’re incarcerated or on parole.”
Unfortunately, this country has shown, at the state and federal level, that supposedly inalienable rights are subject to limitations, and at times, are completely disregarded. Often, this is done along race lines, with estimates stating 1 in 13 voting-age African-Americans are disenfranchised, a rate four times higher than that for non-Blacks. Because of the legacy of slavery, the 13th amendment’s legalization of involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes, and the profitability of private prisons, we know these numbers are proof of discrimination, motivated by callousness and greed.
It’s imperative that New Jersey joins Maine and Vermont in allowing current and former prisoners to perform their civic duty and remain enfranchised. Since the founding of this country, the major civil liberties battles have all began with ensuring the right to vote. It is why immediately following emancipation the 15th amendment was ratified and the earliest women’s movements singled out enfranchisement as the first right to organize around. Access to the ballot box is the single most powerful aspect of any democracy, and attempts to weaken or remove the vote from any group or class of citizens should be seen for what they are– unconstitutional.