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Justice & Peace Looks Behind the News: Protecting the Right to Vote in New Jersey

New Jersey has long supported voting by its citizens. In fact, the 1776 State Constitution, adopted days before the Declaration of Independence, declared that “all inhabitants of the colony of full age and worth fifty pounds . . . shall be entitled to vote.” New Jersey was the first and only colonial state that allowed women and Blacks to vote. Research shows that women and Blacks exercised that franchise. Of course, it did not last, and in 1807 the New Jersey Legislature prohibited women and Blacks from voting. That right was not restored until passage and ratification of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the United States Constitution in 1870 and 1920 respectively.

Unfortunately, voting and elections have become contentious in the past few years. The Covid pandemic resulted in many states enacting laws to make it easier to vote by mail, which previously had only been available to voters who could establish a “reason” for voting by mail. Some states, but not NJ, sent mail ballots to every registered voter. In 2022 some of those laws were rescinded, but other states moved to make voting by mail the preferred method. Even though voting by mail increased voter turnout, critics claimed that it resulted in fraud. Attempts to prove the fraud claims have been summarily rejected by the Courts.

Although recent elections were impacted by changes brought about because of the pandemic, there also are other actions at play. In 1965 Congress enacted the Federal Voting Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Many believe the Voting Rights Act to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislations ever enacted. The law provided nationwide protection from states and local governments imposing rules abridging the right to vote. It outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes, property-ownership requirements and similar devices historically used to disenfranchise minorities. A core provision prohibited certain states from implementing any change affecting voting without further receiving pre-clearance from the Justice Department that the change would not discriminate against protected minorities. In 2013 the Supreme Court declared the pre-clearance provision unconstitutional. (Shelby County v. Holder). Following that decision, many states have rushed to enact restrictions and limitations on voting that have disenfranchised minorities. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act seeks to restore the Voting Rights Act, but passage in the current Congress is unlikely.

To address the inequities, six states have enacted state laws to protect voting rights. Currently, the New Jersey Legislature is considering the New Jersey Voting Rights Act, NJVRA. The bill would reinstate pre-clearance, provide new legal tools to fight discriminatory voting rules, expand language assistance for voters with limited English proficiency, include strong protections against voter intimidation or obstruction at the polls, and instruct state judges to interpret election laws in a pro-voter way whenever possible. Further information can be obtained at https://njvra.org

Thank you to J&P Committee member Alaine Williams for sharing her legal background and knowledge in writing this month’s article.

Interested in learning more? Join us in person or by Zoom for the next meeting of the Justice and Peace Committee on November 19, 10:45 a.m. in the LCOS Parlor. Please contact Lynn Block, committee chair, to get the Zoom link (blockstar59@hotmail.com).

Justice & Peace Committee