Despite Voting Rights Reform, Many People With Felonies Excluded From NJ Primary

July 8, 2020

New Jersey held primary elections on July 7, including hotly contested Congressional races for seats held by Jeff Van Drew (R-2nd District) or Josh Gottheimer (D-5th District). The results will take time to trickle in. But some Jersey residents are also asking to what extent tens of thousands of people with felony convictions were able to finally vote again.

In December 2019, Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed into law Assembly Bill 5823, which restored voting rights for people on probation or parole. A simultaneous effort to restore voting rights to people still behind bars failed. Historically, New Jersey has gross racial disparities in its criminal justice system: There are 12 times as many Black people in its prisons as whites—a greater disparity than in any other state.

The felony voting rights bill took effect in March this year, and about 83,000 people regained the legal right to vote. That’s slightly under the entire population of Trenton, the state capital.

But just four days later, Governor Murphy signed a mandatory stay-at-home order for New Jersey businesses and public spaces, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state hard and fast. Among the many areas of life impacted around the country, the coronavirus has made it really hard to cast a vote.

In New Jersey’s primary, votes were mainly cast by mail. Registered Democrats, Republicans and Independents should all have received a ballot from the state to return. Some in-person polling places remained open, but nearly half of all sites statewide were closed. Only voters with disabilities could use voting booths; everyone else had to fill out a provisional ballot.

The state already held mail-in elections on May 12 for municipal and school boards and special elections, and it didn’t go well. Local outlet NJ Spotlight found that statewide, nearly one in every 10 ballots cast weren’t counted. The state rejected ballots for reasons like voter signatures not matching, missing certificates or ballots, or ballots submitted too late.

How does this all hurt voters with felony convictions even worse? To start, many of those 83,000 residents might not even know they had the right to vote restored. The new law didn’t require the state of New Jersey to actually notify people impacted by it. Then you still need to register to vote, and New Jersey’s deadline for this primary passed three weeks ago.

Organizations like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) have been working since December to make sure this information reached impacted people, both from within their communities and from their probation and parole officers. But the pandemic has disrupted these efforts on all ends, explained Henal Patel, NJISJ’s democracy and justice director, to Filter.

Voter registration drives that NJISJ and other local advocates planned had to be cancelled and replaced with online events and social media outreach. Meanwhile, probation and parole agencies report they are still trying to inform people under their supervision that yes, they can indeed vote again. But that’s complicated by the fact that people might not even be visiting their parole offices.

“In other states, people have been penalized for voting when they didn’t realize they couldn’t. People are hesitant.”

Worse still, corrections officials had previously agreed that they would inform incarcerated people of the new law if they were being released on parole, even providing voter registration forms in prisons. But then New Jersey prisons were hit by one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, putting the brakes on these plans.

“If you’re on parole or probation, you are much likelier to believe your officer when they tell you you have the right to vote and it’s not a parole violation, versus someone else telling you,” said Patel. “In other states, people have been penalized for voting when they didn’t realize they couldn’t. People are hesitant and they won’t register to vote for this reason.”

“We need a lot more voter registration and education,” Imani Oakley of New Jersey Working Families told Filter. “For folks who don’t have good computer or internet access that’s hard, because we can’t gather in community centers. You can only reach so many people online.

“What has to happen is the state has to take more control and get information out to people,” she continued. “That could look like putting signs on buses or putting information online, or even just Governor Murphy talking about it during his press conferences when everyone’s listening.”

Besides all that, there are still major problems with the mail-in ballots. “A lot of folks who are registered and qualified to vote just didn’t get their ballots,” Oakley said. “The state has now pushed back the deadline until July 14 for people to mail them. But if a lot of people didn’t get their ballot by election day, they probably just won’t vote and won’t find this other information.”

The restrictions on in-person voting are also hurting, Oakley said. “I think we should actually be opening more polling places to reduce crowds and give people more places to vote. At this same time we have Six Flags and casinos reopening in our state, so New Jersey could have been smarter with how it handled polling sites.”

Patel agreed that vote-by-mail, while a very welcome development in New Jersey, can be especially difficult for people on parole or probation. “This is a unique election where there’s a lot more voter confusion,” she said. “We have people who’ve never had the right to vote, who maybe got caught up when they were minors. We have people who haven’t voted in 25 or 30 years. Now they’re walking into an election like one we’ve never seen with a lot of uncertainty.”

Looking beyond COVID-19 and the 2020 elections, Patel and other New Jersey activists are focused on their 1844 No More campaign, which demands full restoration of voting rights to every single person, regardless of their conviction or incarceration status. Doing this would put New Jersey on par with just two other states—Maine and Vermont—that allow people to vote from prison.


Photo by Thomas Cizauskas via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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