Republicans in the State Assembly took their Democrat colleagues to task for passing voting rights legislation that they say disrespects and demoralizes police.
The bill prompting GOP criticism would prohibit police officers from being stationed within 100 feet of polling sites. Proponents contend the measure is needed to protect against voter intimidation, but Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24), who spoke against the measure on the floor, contends that the legislation (A4655) treats cops like criminals and could have the opposite of its intended effect.
“The presumption (in the bill) is that they’re bad people,” Wirths said of the police in opposing the bill on the floor. “We wouldn’t have a bill if we didn’t presume that.”
Wirths said he’d be happy to see a police officer when going to a polling site to vote. The Sussex County Republican lawmaker pointed to the recent heroism of U.S. Capitol police officers like Brian Sicknick who died shortly after being injured while protecting the U.S. Capitol from rioters on Jan. 6.
“Why did we need a bill to bar policemen and women from polling places?” said Wirths. “It reminds me of a drug zone for drug dealers—saying drug dealers can’t go within 100 foot or 1,000 foot of a school. These are law enforcement people who protect us. This is outrageous, doing this to them.”
Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-15), the bill’s lead sponsor, characterized it as an effort to protect voters from intimidation at the polls through the use of “poll watchers” and law enforcement officers stationed at New Jersey polling sites. Likewise, Assemblywoman Linda Carter (D-22), another sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is needed “to ensure our elections are safe and secure” for New Jersey residents going to polling places and drop off boxes.
“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,” Carter said in a press statement. “Every voter should feel comfortable going to the polls and performing their civic duty.”
The bill passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly, 44-25 with three members abstaining, on March 25. It now awaits action by New Jersey’s Democrat-led Senate.
Days after the Assembly passed A4655, Gov. Phil Murphy signed separate voting legislation on March 30, requiring counties in New Jersey to establish early in-person voting for all statewide elections beginning this Fall.
Police at Polling Stations
Reynolds-Jackson and other sponsors of A4655 explained that their legislation would prohibit 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 proposed legislation would bar a district board of elections and any of its members from requesting law enforcement officers to be detailed to polling places as well.
Additionally, the bill would prohibit a law enforcement agency from assigning law enforcement officers to any district board to enforce the election laws as well as the placement of a ballot drop box inside, or within 100 feet of an entrance or exit, of a law enforcement agency.
Reynolds-Jackson, Carter, and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35), an additional sponsor, pointed to words by former President Trump as evidence of the need for their bill. They said that before the 2020 Presidential election, Trump “strongly expressed in an interview his intention to deploy sheriffs, law enforcement officers, and U.S. attorneys to polling sites around the country.”
Sparring Over Bill’s Contents
Floor debate on A4655 showcased divergent views on what’s actually in the bill.
“The bill is drafted in a way that it does not criminalize law enforcement,” said Reynolds-Jackson, responding to concerns that Wirths voiced. “It just says that you shouldn’t be within the polling place for long, extended periods of time. And I think you’re missing the point when you say that we are criminalizing law enforcement. That’s not what this bill does. Actually, it’s trying to protect the voter.”
But Wirths contended the bill’s language didn’t just ban law enforcement from being inside polling sites for long stretches, but rather banned police officers from being within 100 feet of a polling site.
“Assemblywoman, with all due respect the bill does not say inside.…This bill says within 100 feet,” Wirths said in asking that the bill be pulled from the floor.
“They can still be proactive outside,” Reynolds-Jackson said of law enforcement, adding that her bill allows for law enforcement to enter a polling site in the event that an incident occurs, and they receive a call to assist.
Social Justice Reform
The Democratic bill sponsors included in their press release a statement of support from Henal Patel, director of democracy & justice at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“Especially during these times, with heightened awareness about police violence against Black people, there is no place for law enforcement at voting locations,” Patel said. “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.”
But Wirths said the bill that the Assembly passed could have the opposite of its intended effect.
“I think that this could suppress the vote,” Wirths said in a March 29 Republican press statement. “Many people may stay home because they feel that there won’t be law enforcement there to protect them.”
Poll Worker Safety Concerns
Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-26), who oversaw elections as municipal clerk in Roxbury Township from 1988 until 2010, urged amendments allowing police to pass through polling locations for the safety of voters and poll workers.
“I counted on my police department to make sure that my polling locations were OK and safe,” DeCroce said. “When I look at this bill, I look at it taking away some direction and responsibility that I had as a clerk making sure that my community was safe.”
DeCroce said she wanted to avoid putting police “in a position of not even wanting to go to the polling place because they don’t want anybody to say they did something wrong.”