Democratic Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson has introduced legislation aiming to protect voters from intimidation through the use of “poll watchers” and law enforcement officers stationed at New Jersey polling sites.

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. Some are now cautioning that similar tactics could be employed in this November’s election.

Recently, 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.

“We are in unprecedented times in this nation,” said Reynolds-Jackson. “A voter’s right to cast their ballot in person may very well be jeopardized as made clear in the commentary by the President. 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.”

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 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; and
A law enforcement officer from serving as a member of the district board of elections or as a challenger during an election.
Currently, all of the above is permitted under state law.

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 Secretary of State after law enforcement officers arrive due to an emergency or disturbance and the Secretary of State must keep a record of the incidents.

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 is awaiting referral to a committee.

Republican State Sen. Michael Testa said in a statement that Reynolds-Jackson’s bill is invalid due to Gov. Phil Murphy sending ballots to New Jerseyans. Voters in the Garden State are being urged to cast their ballots for the General Election by mail rather than in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Let’s be 100% clear. Governor Murphy is engaged in the biggest voter suppression scheme in New Jersey history,” said Testa. “Under his executive orders, many New Jersey voters who want to visit their local polling center to cast their ballot securely in a voting booth on Election Day will be prevented from doing so. Instead of scaring New Jerseyans of the Boogeyman for headlines, my Democratic colleagues could help us solve this real example of voter suppression that Governor Murphy is inflicting upon New Jersey. I won’t hold my breath waiting.”

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