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Working to restore voting rights for New Jersey residents with convictions

November 13, 2018
Voters waiting in line in front of voting precinct

Photo: Lorie Shaull
 
By Alex Staropoli

When our care team works with our patients to help them realize their highest level of health and wellbeing, patients frequently identify an interest in advocacy and a desire to improve their community. Many are acutely aware of how their personal experience can help shape and inform policy decisions that will ultimately impact how others experience the same systems of care. Most recently, three participants in our care intervention program rallied with residents from across New Jersey in support of legislation to expand access to driver’s licenses to qualified drivers whose life circumstances prevent them from meeting the documentation requirements for a license in the state.

While civic engagement can take many forms, voting remains the fundamental way for individuals to engage in public discourse about systemic issues. Individuals who can’t vote are therefore unable to participate in a critical aspect of democracy. Participating in the election process also gives people a sense of belonging. For individuals with complex health and social needs who often feel isolated and marginalized, voting is another way for them to feel part of a larger community.

But for nearly 100,000 individuals in New Jersey who are in prison or serving parole or probation, they are denied the right to vote. Because New Jersey has the worst racial disparities within its criminal justice system in the country, this harmful policy disproportionately impacts people of color.

The criminal justice system already takes away so much of an individual’s humanity. Being denied the right to vote only exacerbates that experience and further impacts an individual’s ability to fully participate as a contributing member of society. In last week’s midterm election, almost 3 million New Jerseyans exercised their fundamental right to vote, yet nearly 100,000 residents with convictions were denied the right to vote, and were thereby unable to weigh in on healthcare, transportation, and a host of other issues that directly impact their lives.

At the Camden Coalition, this discriminatory policy impacts both our patients and staff alike. Charlie Vazquez, a graduate of the Camden Coalition’s care intervention program, said he can’t remember the last time he voted. “Ain’t nobody perfect in this world,” said Charlie. “So we made mistakes and bad choices, but we paid for it. Addiction is a big part of it. Now, your voice doesn’t count because you were homeless, in prison, addicted, and living in poverty? We feel like we lost our voice because we’re not included in anything.”

For our Community Health Worker Brian Thompson, voting is also about the intergenerational impact of elections.

“Not being able to vote not only impacts me, but it also shapes my children’s future,” said Brian. “I am still a citizen of this country, regardless of my past criminal activities. I was released and have to live in society. Shouldn’t I have a say in who gets elected? It’s so frustrating to sit idly by — especially in these times.”

The Camden Coalition is proud to join the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and more than 100 organizations in the state to ask New Jersey leaders to restore voting rights to individuals who are in prison or on parole or probation. To learn more about this statewide effort, visit the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice website.

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