New Jersey legislators in the Assembly are pursuing a bill aiming to protect voters from intimidation through the use of “poll watchers” and law enforcement officers stationed at state polling sites.
The legislation, approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee Oct. 26, would address potential voter suppression tactics that Democrats have raised leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.
“A voter’s right to cast their ballot is a constitutional right that should remain unencumbered, and unthreatened,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35), a co-sponsor of the bill. “Voter intimidation and suppression comes in many forms and can happen anywhere. We’ve seen this done before right here in New Jersey.”
Voter Suppression History
Wimberly is referring to the gubernatorial election of 1981 as an example of voter suppression in the Garden State. That year, voters came across patrols, including a majority uniformed and armed, who were part of the National Ballot Security Task Force.
A consent decree between the Republican National Committee and New Jersey Republican State Committee with the Democratic Party counterparts mandated 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.
Democrats have raised concerns that similar tactics could be employed in this November’s election, especially after President Donald Trump expressed in interviews his intention to deploy sheriffs, law enforcement officers, and U.S. attorneys to polling sites around the country.
“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,” said Wimberly.
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, or assist the members of the board in carrying the ballot box or boxes to the office of the municipal clerk after the ballots are counted;
- a law enforcement officer from serving as a member of the district board of elections or as a challenger during an election; and
- the placement of a ballot drop box inside, or within 100 feet of an entrance or exit, of a law enforcement agency.
Currently, all of the above are permitted under state law.
“A voter’s right to cast their ballot in person may very well be jeopardized as made clear in past commentary by the President,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-15), the other co-sponsor of the proposed law. “Voter intimidation tactics and suppression has 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,” stated Reynolds-Jackson.
The bill comes in the wake of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recently issuing guidance to county prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs across the state emphasizing rules regarding law enforcement activity at polling locations.
On- and off-duty law enforcement officers, according to Grewal, are limited when it comes to elections to “activities necessary to maintain public safety, and to the enforcement of laws securing the right to vote and protecting voters from intimidation and harassment.”
According to Grewal, police can “maintain order, peace and quiet during the hours of registry.” and help carry “the ballot box or boxes to the office of the municipal clerk after the ballots are counted.” An off-duty officer may work on an election board or serve as a poll watcher, but “under no circumstances may such an office wear a police officer’s uniform or carry an exposed weapon.”
The bill’s provisions 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. Officers responding to a call must promptly take the necessary actions to address and remove the emergency or disturbance from the location and can remain at that location only as long as necessary to address and remove that specific emergency or disturbance.
The bill now moves to the Assembly for full consideration.