N.J. restores voting rights to people on probation and parole

In this file photo, voters cast their ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 (Tony Dejak/AP Photo)

In this file photo, voters cast their ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 (Tony Dejak/AP Photo)

New Jersey will extend voting rights to residents who are on parole or probation, allowing nearly 73,000 people across the state to cast ballots for the first time next year.

At a bill signing Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said the sea change in criminal justice policy was part of his “second chance agenda” that prioritizes social justice and correcting historical racial discrimination.

“This is not and should not be one [political] party or the other,” Murphy said. “This is the right thing to do.”

Ron Pierce is on parole after serving three decades in prison for murder and attended the bill signing. He said it was significant to regain his voting rights after so many years behind bars.

“I am definitely thinking about my father, who instilled in me from a very young age that sacred nature of the vote, and understanding that to vote has value to the soul,” Pierce said.

Murphy also signed a law that dramatically expands who can apply for criminal record expungements and sets up an automatic “clean slate” expungement process for those convicted of less serious offenses who have not committed new crimes in 10 years.

Both bills, the Democratic governor said, were aimed at correcting criminal justice policies that have disproportionately impacted people of color.

“We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that it was 400 years ago this year that the first enslaved Africans arrived on this continent,” he said. “When I took office 23 months ago, one of the highest priorities I brought with me was to undo the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

The two new laws inspired pushback. Republicans in the legislature argued that people on parole and probation should serve their full sentences before regaining their voting rights, and that Democrats were more focused on enacting policies for people with criminal records than for law-abiding residents.

New Jersey is the 17th state plus Washington, D.C., to allow people on probation and parole to vote. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow people behind bars to cast ballots.

The expungement law was initially paired with legislation that would have legalized recreational marijuana in New Jersey, but lawmakers were unable to get enough votes to legalize the drug directly.

Earlier this week, they voted to put the question of recreational marijuana legalization to voters on the November 2020 ballot.

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