The People’s Choice
The fight over voting rights was an important issue for Henal Patel long before she ever became the director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in 2019. This legal advocacy think tank focuses on economic, criminal, and democratic justice to ensure that disenfranchised people participate in the electoral process and that voting is accessible to all.
As part of the institute’s 1844 No More Campaign—named after the year that New Jersey first denied the vote to people with criminal convictions and limited voting to white men only—Patel RC’09, NLAW’13 and her colleagues crisscrossed the state to lobby legislators and hold public events to garner support for changing the law. The hard work paid off when the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in December 2019 that restored voting rights for more than 80,000 people on probation and parole.
“I really do feel lucky and blessed to be doing this work,” Patel says.
Patel’s parents, who emigrated from India and settled in northern New Jersey, wanted her to go into the sciences, but she was drawn to the liberal arts. Friends and relatives had raved about Rutgers, so Patel enrolled as a history and English major. She was particularly interested in the events that led to America’s Civil War and how the outcome of the conflict shaped the country.
In a small group discussion class with history professor Paul Clemens that focused on 20th-century American history, Patel learned how to work off and build on the ideas of fellow students, a collaborative skill she uses to this day.
During Patel’s second year at Rutgers Law School in 2011, Dean John J. Farmer Jr. was appointed to New Jersey’s bipartisan commission on congressional redistricting—an exercise that happens every 10 years—and chose Patel for his team. “It was a tremendous experience learning the ins and outs of how redistricting worked and about voting rights. I was there at the right time,” she says.
Patel spent two years working with Professor Ronald Chen at the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic (now the Constitutional Rights Clinic). “I helped organize voter registration efforts at juvenile detention facilities and at the courthouse on Election Day to make sure people weren’t disenfranchised—all things I look back at now and see are the foundation of my career,” she says.
Patel continues to build on that foundation. She applauds recent legislation in New Jersey that expands early in-person voting and mandates a more equitable distribution of ballot drop boxes. She supports proposed legislation in the Garden State that would curtail the presence of law enforcement personnel at polling places.
Through her work at the institute, Patel is fighting for a broad, inclusive democratic process in which every person’s voice is heard.
“We’re making sure that voting is accessible to all voters,” she says, “and that people who are disenfranchised are not disenfranchised any longer.”