New Jersey lawmakers took bold steps last week to enfranchise marginalized groups of state residents, approving progressive bills to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a new type of driver’s license and to restore the voting rights of many people on parole or probation. And in a related criminal justice reform effort, Democratic leaders who could not muster enough votes for outright cannabis decriminalization persuaded both houses to authorize a public referendum in 2020 on the question of legalizing recreational marijuana.
These controversial measures passed despite opposition from many Republicans — not a single GOP legislator in either house voted for the driver’s license bill — as well as pushback from some advocacy groups. The job got done during a lame-duck session of a legislative year dominated by power struggles among the Democrats who control both chambers, a battle a New York Times headline described as “More Civil War Than Progressive Revolution.”
Nevertheless, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed the voting bill Wednesday and the driver’s license measure Thursday; through a spokesperson, he described the week as “a milestone in our fight for social justice.” Murphy, who also had famously vowed to secure legalization of recreational marijuana within 100 days of taking office in January 2018, also said last week that while the referendum is not his preference, it does offer a path forward and is “better than nothing.”
Thanks to the voting bill, more than 70,000 Garden State residents who are no longer incarcerated but are back in the community under state supervision while completing their sentences will be eligible to cast ballots next year. A report released last Monday by the progressive think tank New Jersey Perspective said the new classification of driver’s license should benefit not only the 440,000 state residents who are undocumented, but low-income residents and people reentering society after incarceration as well.
These successes suggest at the very least that the governor and members of his party can unite and in some cases attract some Republican support on legislation related to some of the nation’s most contentious issues, and can do the right thing for constituents despite the Trump administration’s supposed crackdown on "voter fraud” and its inconsistent positions on criminal justice reform. In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf in September called for marijuana legalization, and some people on probation and parole already are eligible to vote, a grassroots coalition similar to one in the Garden State has mobilized behind the driver’s license issue.
In New Jersey, the successful campaign characterized the licenses as a way to improve highway safety by enabling people who need to get to work, take children to school, and otherwise participate in daily life to take the standard steps of applying and testing for, and securing, legal driving status, as well as adhering to requirements to obtain insurance and get vehicles inspected.
The pragmatic approach was a welcome contrast to the inflammatory language and scapegoating common among some immigration opponents. It used common sense to make a reasonable case. New Jersey now joins 14 other states and the District of Columbia in providing such licenses. Perhaps Pennsylvania will do the right thing as well.