New Jersey lawmakers are proposing a bill that would make the state the third in the country to allow prisoners the right to vote. The bill would let people who are incarcerated, on parole and under probation supervision vote, a change supporters say is critical to addressing racial disparities in New Jersey’s criminal justice system. Under current law, New Jersey residents can’t vote if they are incarcerated or on parole or probation. About 94,000 people currently fall into these categories, according to state officials. Shavonda Sumter, a state assemblywoman from Paterson, N.J., said black residents make up a disproportionate share of the state’s prison population—and stripping them of their voting rights violates constitutional protections that that say people can’t be prevented from voting based on their race.
“We do not want to mix the punishment of actually serving time in prison for a crime you’ve committed with stripping away these fundamental human rights,” said Ms. Sumter, a Democrat.
New Jersey has the country’s largest racial disparity in incarceration rates, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for criminal justice reforms. About 60% of the state’s prison population is black compared with about 15% of the general population.
“The fundamental problem is the linking of voting rights and a criminal justice system characterized by gross racial disparities,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a Hudson County Democrat and one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “It is that fundamental problem we must address.”
Should the bill become law, New Jersey would become the third state, after Maine and Vermont, to restore full voting rights to people with convictions. Under the measure, people in prison would be eligible to vote by mail-in ballot in the district where they lived immediately before incarceration.