Thirty years in prison can teach you patience. That's a good thing for Ronald Pierce, who was paroled last year, as he's likely in for a long fight.
Pierce, a 59-year-old North Jersey man, accepts that he's on parole and will be for the rest of his life. But one thing he can't accept: He's also being denied the right to vote.
That's because while the right is guaranteed to people on probation or parole in Pennsylvania and 15 other states, anyone under supervision for a felony conviction is barred from the ballot box in New Jersey.
He's part of a coalition of activists, legislators, faith leaders, judges, and even former prison officials advocating for New Jersey lawmakers to pass bills introduced last month to restore voting rights to all citizens.
They say it's a constitutional imperative, made even more urgent by the fact that New Jersey has the nation's largest racial disparity in incarceration rates. African Americans make up 15 percent of New Jersey residents, but represent about 50 percent of the nearly 100,000 people statewide stripped of voting rights due to criminal convictions.
Pierce, who spoke at a forum in Cherry Hill to rally support for the legislation, said it's not only unfair, it's also bad public-safety policy.
"For people who are incarcerated, voting has a potential to be an effective means of rehabilitation," he said. "I've seen this. When a person engages in civic dialogue, it opens them up to seeing beyond their personal needs to the issues that affect the community."
Pierce was convicted of the 1986 robbery and murder of Wayne Ferragine, 27, of Bayonne. He is now a student at Rutgers University and an intern at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which has been organizing for this legislation.
Camden County has one of the highest rates of disenfranchisement under the current law, according to a report the institute released in December. According to the analysis, New Jersey incarcerates 12 black adults for every white one, and 30 black youths to one white. The average disparity nationwide is 5-1.
The restriction on voting dates back to 1844; lawmakers in the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus said the reason for proposing a change now was the disproportionate impact on black residents.
"If you attach a voting system to a criminal justice process, you will see those racial disparities in the political process as well," said Ryan Haygood, president of the institute. "So part of our goal is to disentangle this relationship."
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow people to vote while incarcerated. The draft legislation would put New Jersey in that group.
A group of three New Jersey Republican lawmakers issued a joint statement saying that would be a mistake.
"Do we really want convicts who knowingly broke the law and victimized others in the process to determine public policy, including gun laws, resources for law enforcement, and school security?" Sen. Chris Connors, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, and Assemblywoman DiAnn Gove wrote in a statement. "Felons forfeited these rights reserved for law-abiding citizens by virtue of the crimes they've committed."
A spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy said the governor does not comment on pending legislation, but "looks forward to working with the Legislature to pass legislation that expands access to the ballot." He declined to respond to an inquiry as to whether Murphy supports expanding that access to people in prison or under supervision. State Sen. President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, whose support would be critical to bringing the measure to a vote, also did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, back at the panel, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Williams, one of the judges who presides over Camden Reentry Court, simply unfolded her pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution — the part that says the right to vote shall not be denied "on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude."
"The 15th Amendment addresses this issue," she concluded. "At some point, the Legislature will address it or not — but I can assure you at some point it comes through the court system."