Restoring the Right to Vote: Isn’t it Time?

By Jon Shure and Rashida MacMurray


To vote in New Jersey, relatively little is required. A person must have registered with election officials and be a United States citizen at least 18 years old, reside in this state and have lived at his or her address for at least 30 days. There is just one more thing, and it never comes into play for most potential voters: you cannot vote in this state if you are serving a prison sentence, on probation or on parole, according to the laws of New Jersey.

While the federal government leaves it to states to determine the rules for voting, electoral qualifications that states set up cannot violate a person’s fundamental rights. And so it is that bans on voting by persons of a particular race or gender or such thinly disguised barriers as poll taxes or “grandfather clauses” all have been struck down over the past 150 years. Serious blots on the nation’s democracy have been removed. But for the most part, efforts to extend the franchise and remove discriminatory obstacles have not included consideration of those who are incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Convicted criminal offenders, then, are the only example in this country of an entire “class” of citizens being denied voting rights.

New Jersey’s original statute on the topic dates to 1799. It bars voting rights to anyone “convicted of blasphemy, treason, murder, piracy, arson, rape, sodomy, or any infamous crime against nature, bigamy, robbery, conspiracy, forgery or larceny.” This notion was upheld in a 1948 state Supreme Court ruling which found that “this particular category of crimes and its intent was to maintain the purity of our elections by excluding those would be voters whose status was deemed to be inimical thereto.” In its modern form, the law bars anyone from voting “who is serving a sentence or is on parole or probation as the result of a conviction of any indictable offense under the laws of this state or another state or the United States” (19:4-1 of the New Jersey statutes.)

Not every state is as restrictive as New Jersey. Indeed, three states place no voting restrictions on convicted felons. Another 15 plus the District of Columbia deprive convicted offenders the right to vote only while they are in prison, and 3 states deny the vote to offenders while they are in prison or on parole. New Jersey is one of 14 that bar voting by anyone sentenced to prison, on parole, or on probation In 15 states, disenfranchisement can last even beyond parole and is in some cases permanent.

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