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Citizens on parole, probation will make their voices heard in 2020

Jesse Gallagher, 40, of Freehold, has never voted in an election. Although he has been on parole three times and faces more than four years of Drug Court, a form of probation, Gallagher plans to vote in his first election in November.

That is because late in 2019, lawmakers in New Jersey passed a bill that, after being signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, restores voting rights to more than 80,000 citizens who are on parole or probation in New Jersey.

The new law will take effect on March 17 and the League of Women Voters in New Jersey will hold a statewide Citizen’s Voter Registration Day on that date.

The first opportunity for individuals who are on parole or probation to vote under the new law will be June 2, when primary elections will be held.

Before the law was passed, a New Jersey citizen who was convicted of a crime and placed on parole or probation forfeited their ability to vote in elections.

“It will be good to have my voice heard for once,” Gallagher said in an interview on Feb. 20. “Instead of waiting another four or five years before I can vote, now I can do that on March 17.”

Gallagher, who said he formerly used and distributed drugs, said he will be proud to cast his first vote in this year’s presidential election. Gallagher said that having his voting right restored encourages him to be a better citizen.

“I was never in a position to (vote). I was either using drugs or incarcerated or on parole,” Gallagher said. “I think there is a big voice that could be heard from people who have been through experiences such as mine because even though we have been incarcerated … we are intelligent people who have the right to vote.

“In the past, it felt like my opinion never really mattered. Like whatever was happening, I didn’t have any kind of say in it … To have my voice heard, (voting) gives me more reason to continue to do the right thing because now it feels like I matter,” Gallagher said.

During a press conference in Neptune on Feb. 19, representatives of the League of Women Voters in New Jersey announced a statewide initiative to register thousands of New Jersey citizens who are on parole or probation to vote.

The new law took 10 years to come to fruition, said Nancy Hedinger, president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. Hedinger said that prior to the enactment of the law, such an individual’s right to vote was not restored until they completed their parole or probation.

Hedinger said it is a coincidence the law that could secure new votes from 80,000 New Jersey residents comes just before the 2020 presidential election.

“(Voting) is a right and people should be able to vote,” Hedinger said. “… There are thousands of people walking around on parole or probation who have not done anything and served their time and they are not able to participate in a basic right in their community.”

Evelyn Murphy, Voters Service Director, League of Women Voters of Southern Monmouth County, said New Jersey legislators believe “voting is a fundamental right and civic duty.”

“There is no evidence that denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions serves any legitimate public safety purpose. Denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions who are on parole or probation unnecessarily burdens law enforcement, election officials and New Jersey residents,” Murphy said.

Brian McGillivray, facility director at the New Jersey Re-entry Corporation (NJRC), said he is thankful voting rights for individuals who are on parole or probation has been enacted.

The NJRC is a nonprofit agency with a social mission to remove all barriers to employment for citizens returning from incarceration.

He said the new law “will make our clients that much more productive in the community” and that “the right to vote for our clients is something that can make them whole again.”

Advil Robinson, 47, of Asbury Park, has been on probation for one year and said he was unable to cast a vote in the 2019 election. He said that this year, “I’m happy to have the right to vote.”

“Through a strong partnership with the New Jersey Re-entry Corporation, (the League of Women Voters) has been ensuring that all eligible returning citizens are registered and informed about their voting rights,” Hedinger said, adding that, “Our local leagues are readying themselves to ensure they are available to these newly enfranchised voters.”

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