When a Democratic state is run by a Republican governor, obvious progressive wins can become frustrating impossibilities. Over the last eight years, New Jersey has tried to pass some of the most progressive voting rights laws in the country, only to be repeatedly vetoed by two-term former Gov. Chris Christie.
But Christie just left the building.
In 2018, two New Jersey state senators will begin the work necessary to restore voting rights to those serving time in prison for a felony conviction. In the state where African-Americans are convicted at the highest rate compared to whites in the nation (12.2 to 1), the new bill would bring the vote back to almost 100,000 of those incarcerated and on parole or probation. State Sens. Sandra Cunningham and Ronald Rice hope the legislation will restore full voting rights to all incarcerated people, which would make New Jersey the third state to do so, after Maine and Vermont.
Winning back voting rights is often framed as partisan strategy for Democrats. After all, data indicates that if those convicted of felonies could vote nationwide, Al Gore would have been president. But framing voting rights as a matter of party politics grants support for those rights as long as voters support a certain team.
Instead, let’s look at the good that felon voting rights does for all of society, and the social systems and safety nets that those formerly incarcerated people end up supporting. One estimate says Americans lose $1.8 billion in public spending through felon disenfranchisement. In states with disenfranchisement, each child loses $640 in education spending.
As voting expert Sean McElwee has written, voting is also an unexpectedly strong component in a whole fabric of desirable civic behaviors. Growing up with voting parents increases the likelihood to vote, as does being socialized in a voting community.
In 2004, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued to restore the right to vote to those on probation or parole in New Jersey, but the judge ruled that the law only “inadvertently has a disparate impact on certain minority groups,” as opposed to having been designed with racist intent. In other words, the law may be racist, but not intentionally.
But as Scott Novakowski outlined in a recent report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the racism of many state disenfranchisement laws contain racist engineering. In Mississippi, the infractions that result in a loss of voting rights were carefully chosen to target black criminals instead of white criminals — those convicted of theft lose their voting rights, those convicted of murder still go to the ballot box.
“When we think of slavery, when we think of disenfranchisement, we think of the South,” Cunningham, who has yet to speak to newly elected New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy about the subject, told Mic at her office in Jersey City. “But we also need to look at ourselves.”