By Fern Gillespie
Our mission is empowering voters and democracy,” explained Dr. Jennifer M. Howard, referring to the work of the nonpartisan League of Women Voter of New Jersey ( LWVNJ) where she holds the position of president. In her full-time profession, Dr. Howard practices as an OB/GYN physician in Lower Manhattan.
The Mercer County, New Jersey resident and the organization’s first Black president, spoke to The Positive Community following the November 2021 election on the urgency of voting. “It’s important to understand the historical significance,” she explained. “People had to literally fight to get their right to vote and take outlandish tests to prove they were competent to vote. If I were to focus my non 9 to 5 activities, it should be something which deals with the importance of voting.”
Outlining a few problematic experiences voters may have encountered while attempting to vote, she stated, “This election (2021), our voter protection hotline was inundated throughout the state. Some of it was poll worker error; some of it may have been new technology. But if you had decided you wanted to vote in person and they weren’t ready for you to vote, you became disenfranchised.” She continued, “One of our coalition partners decided to go to court. Maybe we needed to extend the voting by 90 minutes throughout the state. The judge who heard it unfortunately denied the challenge. But this is where we’re talking about defending democracy–that on or about Election Day, the barriers would not be there. We want to make sure our communities are informed of their rights. That’s how we champion voting.”
Over the years, many citizens have been denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. “Parolees and those on probation are now eligible to vote. It was signed into law December 2019 and enacted in March of 2020, which unfortunately was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Howard. “In the past, once you had served your time and came out, you were on probation and parole. The thought was that you cold never, ever be a citizen with the right to vote. At the League of Women Voters, we go into reentry programs and help them go through the process.”
Activist training and lobbying is a service The League of Women Voters offers. “We’re in the middle of legislative and congressional redistricting in New Jersey, that’s why we’re doing this training,” she explained. “It’s free and open to the public. You do not have to be part of the League of Women Voters. We want people to understand that the vote is their voice. Their voice should determine how their legislative and congressional districts look on the map.” The training is designed to give people the tools and skills they need to testify in front of the New Jersey Senate, an apportionment commission, or a congressional legislative redistricting commission. “Hopefully, with our training you will feel empowered to speak at some of the redistricting commissions. We are a nonpartisan organization; we stress this all the time. We want to make sure that you, the resident, voter, and citizen of New Jersey feels your voice is heard.”
As a Harvard University graduate, Howard had her pick of medical schools. She proudly chose Howard University College of Medicine for her medical degree. “I am grateful for the ability to go to an HBCU and a medical school like Howard, which had not only a great academic background, but an incredibly great clinical background,” she beamed. “Right now,” she explained, “we’re talking about things in healthcare like social determinants of health, meaning, ‘Do you understand where your patients are coming from? When you prescribe a prescription, do you know if a patient has to go to the pharmacy that’s close by or one far away? Do you know if they have enough food at home?’ We didn’t have to be taught about social determinants of health at Howard. It was part of our culture to understand our patients. It was instilled in us.”
In addition to her medical practice and work in voting rights, Dr. Howard devotes her time as a healthcare advocate, a mentor to medical students and residents, a medical volunteer for overseas medical missions, and the medical director of a reproductive health organization—all meant to give back and give a leg up to those coming behind her. “Historically, especially as people of color, we had to find out things through unofficial mechanisms,” she explained. “Not everyone is going to look out for you. The community that will look out for you, will uplift you. By uplifting you, hopefully you can uplift others.”
For more information, check out the League of Women Voters of New Jersey at https://www.lwvnj.org.