Until Everyone Can Vote, We’re Still Not a Democracy. Florida Made it Happen. When Will N.J.?

Micah Herskind | First published at NJ.com | 12/3/18

In the flurry of last month’s election results, one result stood out as particularly exciting: Florida voters passed Ballot Initiative 4, reinstating the right to vote for nearly 1.5 million voters and re-enfranchising nearly twenty percent of Florida’s African American population. Just as importantly, Florida’s referendum highlighted that group-based voter disenfranchisement remains a widespread legalized practice, enshrined in law, that affects millions who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.

This is true here in New Jersey, where an estimated 100,000 people remain formally disenfranchised under the law, held in prison, on parole, or on probation. These are the individuals for whom, as a recent report from the People’s Policy Lab notes, “democracy remains a spectator sport.”

In other words, much like the United States itself, New Jersey is not yet a formal democracy. The state and country are democratizing, perhaps, but the franchise has been historically slow to extend to at the margins of society. Over two hundred years after the country’s founding, why has the franchise not yet been extended to all?

Some argue that to commit a crime is to forfeit one’s right to vote. But setting aside the fact that many of us commit “crimes” daily — the frequent yet un-policed drug use at my own school, Princeton University, confirms as much —disenfranchisement is a part of a larger racially-concentrated and class-stratified system that turns incarcerated people into second-class citizens.

This is particularly true in New Jersey, which features the worst racial disparities in its prison system of any state and where roughly half of those disenfranchised for a criminal conviction are Black.

As these disparities have been highlighted, a growing consensus seeks to end mass incarceration. But a crucial step in that process is ensuring our legislators are accountable to the incarcerated—how can we end mass incarceration if we refuse to listen to those who have borne the worst of it? And while part of listening to and learning from incarcerated people means reading their work and amplifying their activism, the other part is listening electorally, through the vote.

Disenfranchisement also persists because some politicians directly benefit from the practice. In a manner eerily reminiscent of the three-fifths clause—which boosted slave-holding states’ electoral representation while denying the personhood of the enslaved—those held in prisons are unable to vote, but are generally counted for electoral representation in the counties where they are imprisoned. Frequently referred to as “prison gerrymandering,” this practice persists here in New Jersey, where legislation to overturn the practice was vetoed in 2017 by then-Governor Christie.

But to be clear, disenfranchising incarcerated people isn’t wrong just because it artificially boosts electoral representation in some places; it’s wrong because voting is a right, and those impacted by the law deserve a say in the policy process.

Further, the continued disenfranchisement of incarcerated people runs counter to many politicians’ stated goals. Indeed, there is a renewed bipartisan consensus on the need for effective post-incarceration reentry. And yet, though politicians want incarcerated people to return to society as “productive citizens,” our system does not treat them as citizens. How can we expect civic engagement if we don’t grant the means to civically engage?

We can’t. Fortunately, bills A3456 and S2100 have recently been introduced into the New Jersey legislature. Currently stuck in committee, if passed this legislation would restore the right to vote to the nearly 100,000 people who are incarcerated or on probation or parole in New Jersey.

This is groundbreaking legislation, and would make New Jersey a leader in the fight for the voting rights.

But even voting rights legislation is an incomplete, if important, step toward democracy. Along with the right to vote must come a massive organizing initiative to register newly-eligible voters — or better, to automatically register all voters — and to get out the vote. Such an effort will be integral to democracy, both in Florida now and in New Jersey after legislation is passed.

Regardless of your politics, we must recognize that we will only live in a true democracy once everyone has the right to vote. So, call your representative, and maybe even get involved with the statewide campaign for voting rights. New Jersey isn’t yet a democracy—but with your help, it can be.


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