(TRENTON)– Potential voter suppression tactics are a major national concern at polling places during elections. Assembly members Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Benjie Wimberly and Linda Carter sponsor legislation aiming to protect voters from intimidation through the use of “poll watchers” and law enforcement officers stationed at New Jersey polling sites.
The bill was approved today by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.
“We are in unprecedented times in this nation,” said Assemblywoman Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon). “A voter’s right to cast their ballot in person may very well be jeopardized as made clear in past commentary by former President Trump. Voter intimidation tactics and suppression have no place in New Jersey. We’ve seen the punitive effects of these anti-civil rights strategies in other states as well as in New Jersey in the past.”
“Misusing the state’s law enforcement agencies to send messages of intimidation is a partisan ploy to suppress participation in the voting process. Residents must always feel safe when going to a polling place and free to cast their ballot.”
The gubernatorial election of 1981 was a prime example of voter suppression in State history. That year, voters came across patrols, many of them uniformed and armed, who were part of the National Ballot Security Task Force. It took a consent decree between the Republican National Committee and New Jersey Republican State Committee with the Democratic Party counterparts to mandate the review of ballot security actions by the federal government to end these voter intimidation efforts. The decree expired in 2018 and has not been renewed.
Before the 2020 presidential election, former President Donald Trump strongly expressed in an interview his intention to deploy sheriffs, law enforcement officers, and U.S. attorneys to polling sites around the country.
“A voter’s right to cast their ballot is a constitutional right that should remain unencumbered, and unthreatened,” said Assemblyman Wimberly (D-Bergen, Passaic). “Voter intimidation and suppression comes in many forms and can happen anywhere. We’ve seen this done before right here in New Jersey. This legislation makes it clear that there’s no place for these tactics in any election.
“Given the contentious and challenging times we are in right now, we must take steps to ensure our elections are safe and secure for residents going to polling places and drop off boxes.”
“There should be clear separation between law enforcement and the electoral process,” said Assemblywoman Carter (D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union). “Apart from responding to emergencies, law enforcement is not needed at polling places, particularly since their presence may intimidate voters and discourage them from casting a ballot. Every voter should feel comfortable going to the polls and performing their civic duty.”
Specifically, the bill would prohibit:
- a district board of elections, and any of its members from requesting law enforcement officers to be detailed to polling places;
- a law enforcement agency from assigning law enforcement officers to any district board to enforce the election laws, maintain order, “peace and quiet” during the hours of registry and election, and
- a law enforcement officer from serving as a member of the district board of elections unless they are off duty.
Currently, all of the above is permitted under state law.
The measure also prohibits law enforcement officers from remaining or standing within 100 feet of a polling place or ballot drop box, unless they are voting in a personal capacity or traveling to and from, or remaining within, their personal residence.
The bill’s provision does not prohibit the presence of a law enforcement officer when the law enforcement agency receives a call for assistance with a specific emergency or disturbance. The law enforcement officers responding to the call must promptly take the necessary actions to address and remove the emergency or disturbance from the location. The officers can remain at that location only as long as necessary to address and remove that specific emergency or disturbance.
Also, the district board must promptly notify the county board of elections or superintendent of elections after law enforcement officers arrive due to an emergency or disturbance. The county board of elections or superintendent of elections would then promptly notify the Secretary of State of that detail or assignment.
The bill also prohibits the placement of a ballot drop box inside, or within 100 feet of an entrance or exit, of a law enforcement agency.
“Especially during these times, with heightened awareness about police violence against Black people, there is no place for law enforcement at voting locations,” said Henal Patel, Director of Democracy & Justice at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Whether intentional or not, having law enforcement near polling places or ballot drop boxes can intimidate voters and cause people to avoid casting their ballots. Voters have enough to deal with as we navigate holding elections in the middle of a pandemic. The last thing we need is to give voters—particularly Black voters—another obstacle to overcome.”
The legislation will now be given further consideration by the Assembly Speaker.