The right of prisoners to vote: Five NJ gubernatorial candidates describe their views

The full video

After the NAACP and NJPAC social justice forum for nine New Jersey governor candidates, Citizens’ Media TV had the opportunity to speak with five candidates—four Democratic candidates and the only Green candidate (and one of the moderators). We asked each candidate their views on the rights of prisoners to vote—not felons, those currently in jail.

Last year, CMTV’s Jeff asked this question of Bernie Sanders in South Carolina, before the Democratic primary (which he is answering in the picture at the bottom of this article). He said that Vermont was only one of two states where prisoners have the right to vote.

Democrat Ray Lesniak

(Each video in this article, when listed under a candidate’s name, is cued up to exactly where the candidate answers this question.)

You know what? I think they lose the right to vote while they’re in prison. But after prison, automatically they should get the right to vote, regardless of the crime. And, as I’ve said, we should have less felons, by more diversion into treatment instead of prison.

CMTV interviewed Mr. Lesniak last month, and he has indeed passed significant legislation to reduce the prison population.

Democrat John Wisniewski

The right of [felons] to vote is something that we have in our current law. I’m open to looking at allowing prisoners to vote as well. I think our first goal has to be to make sure that the 70,000 people who have served sentences and are out there and can’t participate in democracy. As I pointed out on the stage, that’s one of our largest towns in New Jersey; 70,000 people. It’s unconscionable that they can’t have their voices heard. But I do think that that is something we ought to look at as well.

Green Seth Kaper-Dale

I want all prisoners to have the vote while they’re in prison. I think to take that away runs the risk of serious fraud. We’ve had times in this country where we have limited a person’s worth. We’ve said that someone is 3/5 of a person. In the state that has the worst racial disparity of any state within its prison system, to then keep the vote away from people? It’s very concerning. So I want people to have the chance to vote while they’re in prison. It’s not part of corrections to take away the vote.

Democrat Jim Johnson

I think the reentry process should start from the moment of sentencing. [This] means that, in addition to training people, we should prepare them to reenter society, including civil society. I think that the right to vote for all prisoners is something that has to be done on a case-by-case basis. But as soon as people are released, they ought to be re-integrated into society, including getting the right to vote back.

Democrat Bill Brennan

If you’re in prison—it hadn’t occurred to me to ever have that happen—but, you know what hit home? When Mark Zinna said a father should be able to vote for the school board of his child. That resonated with me. So, you know what? Why not. If you haven’t committed a crime that touches on your public office, such as official misconduct or bribery or extortion or something like that, you should be able to vote. The prison population is one aspect of society. The ex-convicts, or the convicts who have been released, who have served their sentences and are now part of the community, we have to do something about that.

Democrat Mark Zinna

We did not speak to Mr. Zinna directly. In the forum, however, in response to a question about felons getting the right to vote (after prison), he said:

When you stop former felons from voting, it’s basically the new Jim Crow laws. We can’t have a free citizenry and not have everyone have the right to vote. I’m not even clear why you lose your right to vote when you go to prison. We should not be disconnecting people from society, disconnecting them from their community. That’s exactly the opposite of what we want to do. We want folks to come out of prison and go back to their communities, to take part in what goes on there.

Mr. Zinna’s views are also mentioned by Mr. Brennan, above.

In South Carolina, Bernie Sanders says he supports the right to vote for prisoners, and that Vermont is only one of two states in the nation that allow justice forum post interview with kaper-dadle.jpg


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