Long-stalled bill barring police from polling places lands on Murphy’s desk
A poll worker sits outside of the polling station in Saint Aloysius on July 7, 2020 in Jersey City. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
A bill barring police officers from polling stations landed on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after months in legislative limbo, but its fate remains unclear with a rapidly approaching deadline that could see it automatically vetoed.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), would bar county election boards from requesting police be stationed within 100 feet of a polling place or a secure ballot drop box.
The bill was written to head off a resurgence of an infamous task force blamed for intimidating voters in New Jersey’s cities.
“We want to just make sure everybody will have an opportunity to vote and not be intimidated by the police being present at the polls,” Turner said. “This is particularly true now that we passed a law that would allow or permit people on parole or probation to register and vote.”
The roughly 85,000 individuals granted suffrage under that reform might be put off from voting by police presence, she said.
In 1981, the Republican National Committee recruited off-duty police and sheriff’s officers and stationed them outside of polling places in largely non-white voting districts. Tom Kean Sr. narrowly won that year’s gubernatorial race over Jim Florio by a mere 1,797 votes.
Some, Florio included, blamed the so-called Ballot Security Task Force for the Democrat’s loss, and the following year, the Democratic National Committee sued its Republican counterpart, alleging voter intimidation and other violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Though they admitted no wrongdoing, the Republican National Committee and the New Jersey Republican State Committee entered into a consent decree that subjected similar programs to judicial review.
That consent decree expired in 2018, setting off fears among Democrats about renewed efforts to depress the vote through increased police presence, though that has yet to materialize.
The bill, which squeezed through the Senate in a 21-16 vote and cleared the Assembly 44-29, would also ban electioneering within 100 feet of a secure ballot drop box — electioneering outside of polling places is barred under a similar prohibition — and bar drop boxes from being placed within 100 feet of a police station entrance or exit. Drop boxes already installed at such locations can remain after approval from a county’s commissioners.
The measure faced a rocky path to Murphy’s desk. Across a period of several months beginning last March, the bill was posted for final votes in the Senate then pulled over concerns from some Democratic members in North Jersey over removing police officers from polling stations located in senior housing buildings.
“Some of the people there felt that seniors needed police in their polling places because that’s what they’ve always had, and they just felt there should be police presence there in the event there is a problem,” Turner said.
The final version of the bill would allow officers to be stationed at senior housing facilities that report threats or other safety concerns and includes exceptions for police officers that live within 100 feet of a polling place. It also would permit law enforcement personnel to enter polling stations to address disturbances or escort individuals who require police assistance.
New Jersey’s powerful police unions played a part in the bill’s stumbles, and lobbying from the groups was responsible for some changes that made it into the final version.
“Broadly, anytime you’re excluding police from an area, it’s concerning, but I understand the bill sponsors’ concerns,” New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association President Wayne Blanchard said. “So, we worked with the bill sponsors to narrow the scope on issues such as, what if a police officer goes in off duty? What if the governor is going to vote and has his executive protection?”
It’s not clear whether Murphy will sign the bill before Jan. 18, when any unsigned bills on his desk will be pocket vetoed. A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment.
The compromises left both sides with some complaints.
“It’s not my favorite piece of legislation, I can tell you that, but I am thankful for working with the bill sponsors to tighten it up as best we could,” Blanchard said.
Turner viewed the exchanges a little differently.
“The police have a strong lobby, so we just amended it to their satisfaction,” she said.
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