In New Jersey, public officials vote, then go to jail

If Joe Ferriero wants a little payback before he heads off to prison, he can do it on Tuesday by voting against Chris Christie.

New Jersey state law allows convicted felons to vote up until the time of their sentencing. Ferriero is among a long list of political leaders who have either been convicted or pleaded guilty but have not yet been sentenced.

Ferriero, the former Bergen County Democratic Chairman, was convicted last week on one count of extortion and two counts of mail fraud that were brought against him last year by federal prosecutors while Christie was serving as U.S. Attorney.

Six Jersey City officials and political candidates arrested in July and have already entered guilty plea still have the right vote in the November 3 gubernatorial election – and perhaps use the opportunity to extract a small measure of revenge against Christie, whose office initiated the sting operation that ensnared them.

Solomon Dwek, the real estate developer-turned-FBI informant, would also be allowed to vote – if he was registered. Monmouth County Superintendent of Elections Hedra Siskel said that she has no record of Dwek on the voter rolls in his home county for at least the last five years — this, despite the fact that Dwek and his wife have donated tens of thousands of dollars to New Jersey politicians and PACs since 1998.

New Jersey state law only disqualifies from voting someone who “is serving a sentence or is on parole or probation as the result of a conviction of any indictable offense under the laws of this or another state or of the United States.”

There used to be explicit language in the law laying out crimes that disqualified convicts from voting, but those references were deleted in the early 1970s after a three-judge District Court panel ruled that they violated the Equal Protection Clause.

So does Ferriero plan to vote?

“I would assume he does, but I have not discussed it with him,” said his lawyer, Joseph Hayden.

Ferriero could not be reached for comment.

The law gets murkier, however, in the case of former state Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D-Paramus), who was convicted of corruption in April after being indicted by Christie’s office.

Although Coniglio has been convicted and sentenced, he will not report to the central Pennsylvania federal prison where he will have to spend the next two-and-a-half years until the week after the election.

Election law expert Brian Nelson says that, the way he understands the law, Coniglio maintains the right to vote until he reports to prison.

“Surprisingly, until they’ve begun to serve their sentence, they maintain their right to vote in New Jersey,” he said.

Two cases back this up. In 1978, a trial court judge in Cumberland County ruled that an elections official was wrong to deny a man who pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges the right to vote, since Election Day was prior to the man’s surrender date. And four years later – basing his ruling partly on the Cumberland County decision — a trial court judge in Hudson County ruled that former Union City Mayor William Vincent Musto, whose conviction was stayed pending appeal at the time, could vote.

Another election law attorney, Jack Carbone, disagreed. Carbone would not addressquestions about Coniglio directly, since he represented him in a case about whether he could use campaign funds to pay his legal defense bills. But he said the Cumberland County case does not apply outside of that county’s borders.

In an elections guide, the State Attorney General’s Office wrote that “Any person who has been convicted of an indictable offense under federal or state law and is serving a sentence, or is on probation or parole, is not allowed to register to vote.”

Carbone said, in most cases, convicts technically start serving the sentence the moment the judge imposes it.

“It is a very fine shading with no bright line test, and requires parsing the words and circumstances in each case,” he said. “Consider what a judge says during sentencing: ‘I impose a sentence which is suspended pending appeal’ or ‘The sentence is imposed and you may remain free pending appeal.’ And If I had to opine, you will probably find that the election officials view it, read it, and interpret it in 21 differing ways depending on the County, I would follow the written advice of the Attorney General.”

In New Jersey, public officials vote,  then go to jail