Two bills that civil rights advocates have long fought for passed through the Legislature – one that counts incarcerated people for redistricting purposes at their most recent known address rather than the address of a prison or jail, and another that enables voters to register online. Both pieces of legislation now go to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his signature.
In concert with a bill signed by the governor in December restoring the right to vote to people on probation and parole in New Jersey, these policies constitute some of the most important advances for voting rights in New Jersey history.
If signed, S758/A1987 will apportion districts and count people for the census based on the last known address of an incarcerated person rather than the address of the facility. To illustrate the imbalances of power caused by prison-based gerrymandering, as a result of the presence of three large prisons in Cumberland County, nearly five percent of the total county population is made up of incarcerated people, who primarily come from other parts of the state. Senator Sandra Cunningham, Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez, and Senator Nellie Pou sponsored the bill in the Senate, and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano sponsored the bill in the Assembly.
“Our democratic system hinges on the basic principle of one person, one vote. But for far too long, New Jersey’s system of apportionment has unfairly diluted the voices of some and artificially strengthened the voices of others – and often, because of racial disparities in our justice system, it comes at the expense of people of color. At a time when our democracy is in crisis, New Jersey has taken important steps to make our democracy stronger,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Supervising Attorney and Director of Supreme Court Advocacy Alexander Shalom regarding the bill eliminating prison-based gerrymandering.
The Legislature’s bill S589/A422, if signed, will create a system for online voter registration, expanding civic engagement by making it easier to register to vote. Currently, voters must mail paper forms or submit them to county elections boards. In addition to a 2018 law requiring the Motor Vehicle Commission’s forms to register eligible voters unless they opt out, fewer obstacles stand in the way of voter registration. Senator Loretta Weinberg was the prime sponsor in the Senate, and the prime sponsors in the Assembly were Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, Assemblywoman Patricia Jones, Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty.
“In a democracy, voting is our voice. Online registration makes it easier to step up to the microphone,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “The fewer barriers there are to voter registration, the more representative our democracy can be. People have fought and died for the right to register to vote, and we should do everything in our power to make it as accessible as possible.”
The bill to end prison-based gerrymandering will go into effect before the 2021 apportionment process, making its passage especially timely. The online registration bill, if signed, would go into effect 180 days after enactment. New Jersey’s strides forward are part of a larger national campaign expanding the right to vote. In 2019, the national ACLU Voting Rights Project successfully challenged the Trump administration’s attempt to collect citizenship information on the 2020 census at the U.S. Supreme Court. The national ACLU also enjoined a Florida law that kept people who owed a debt to the state from voting and succeeded in demanding Texas rescind a discriminatory policy that purged voters from the rolls.