PATERSON, NJ - Nearly three dozen volunteers took to the streets of Paterson Friday seeking to help residents exercise their rights by registering to vote in the upcoming election. The deadline to submit voter registration forms is Tuesday.

For Board of Education Commissioner Manny Martinez, the goal was to register as many voters as possible, letting anyone he came in contact with know that “now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.” Listing social justice and healthcare, both areas where the disparities between various segments of the population have come to light in the wake of COVID-19, as key issues, Martinez offered that the outcome of the stakes of this year’s Presidential election are “life or death.”

Martinez’s colleague on the Board, Corey Teague, was also on hand as the cavalcade of volunteers that would make five stops across Paterson got their marching orders from local lawyer and activist Kenyatta Stewart. “The last four years have shown our community how badly things can go,” Teague told TAPinto Paterson. “Too many residents in urban centers think their vote doesn’t count, we need to show them that they too can be a part of progress.”

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Organized by Stewart, who is also the co-founder of We Believe, and a host of other local leaders, including Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, the effort also took on special importance as part of the focus was on registering formerly incarcerated residents who had previously lost their right to vote following their convictions.

The new law, which was championed by Sumter and Wimberly, went into effect earlier this year and allows those on parole and probation to cast ballots. 

“It’s no secret that a lot of Black and Brown people have been taken for granted,” by government officials, Stewart, who regularly offers his service to help residents obtain expungement of past criminal records. “Voting is an important way to get involved,” Stewart said when asked what message they’d be delivering as they crisscrossed the city.

The effort to ensure that all residents have a chance to be engaged would not stop with the vote either, Stewart added, saying that legislation to allow for the creation of civilian police review boards and to adequately fund public education are “also part of the package.”

While more than a decade away from having a vote of her own, Riley Best, 9, is no stranger to participatory democracy as her father T.J. Best serves as a member of the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholder and her grandfather, Robert Artis, a councilman in nearby Prospect Park, is often sought out by aspiring candidates for his political wisdom. One of the youngest volunteers joining the group on Friday Riley showed not only an eloquence in choosing her words but also a profound understanding of why voting matters.

“Sometimes things can go wrong and we need someone we can trust to fix them,” Riley said. 

Asked what sort of things she needs, Riley was quick to list off family, friends, a house, and school before going more universal and concluding “we all need a lot of things.” 

Nearly 75 new voter applications were collected Friday, Jada Fulmore of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) said. Since March, Fulmore added, efforts like it have helped the statewide nonprofit that works remove all barriers to employment for citizens returning from incarceration register more than 400 residents. 

Having their rights returned to them is “historic and monumental,” Fulmore said. “We are educating the population and giving them a new way of thinking, that voting is another way to get through their challenges.”

The 2020 election, Fulmore concluded, “is the biggest of our lives.”

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