Voting advocates decry plan to allow police at polling places in schools, senior centers

By: - July 6, 2022 7:00 am

Safety concerns prompted New Jersey legislators to introduce a bill to allow police at polling places at schools and senior centers on election days. But critics warn of voter intimidation. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

A coalition of about 30 progressive groups is fighting a proposal to allow police to be present at public schools and senior residential centers that serve as polling places on election days.

The bill sponsored by Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) is intended “to maintain order and to provide security at the location during the conduct of the election.”

But critics instead call it “a knee-jerk reaction” to recent mass shootings that will only create a false sense of security.

“We see it as a misguided, reflexive reaction to recent tragedies,” said Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s democracy and justice program. “We know it’s really important to keep our kids safe, but also keep our democracy safe. And we don’t think this bill does either.”

It also rolls back existing law, Patel said.

Gov. Phil Murphy in January signed a law forbidding both uniformed and plain-clothed police officers from getting within 100 feet of a polling place or ballot drop box on election days.

The goal was to protect against voter intimidation, especially in communities of color. Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), the legislation’s sponsor, at the time also said banning police from polling stations would ensure the 85,000 New Jerseyans on parole or probation — who were granted suffrage in December 2019 — felt comfortable voting too.

Ruiz and Diegnan introduced their bill a month after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas — and just a week before New Jersey legislators recessed for the summer. The fast-tracked bill passed unanimously in both the Senate’s state government committee and the full Senate despite some testimony against it. It hasn’t moved in the Assembly.

Patel testified against the bill at the Senate’s state government committee last month. She reminded lawmakers that schools that serve as polling stations already are permitted by state law to close or go remote if administrators feel it’s unsafe for in-person classes to proceed as usual on election days.

“Police aren’t a solution to everything,” Patel told the New Jersey Monitor. “We need to generally stop assuming that police in schools makes kids safer. That’s not true for many of them, especially Black and brown kids who are already over-policed.”

Committee members who advanced the bill included Turner, who said recent school shootings prompted her support of the bill.

“This is not a rollback in my opinion. It’s a carveout,” Turner said at last month’s committee meeting. “People now are doubly frightened in terms of protecting our children in schools … In this climate, I cannot vote against having more safety rather than less safety.”

Philip Hensley, testifying for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, agreed that the safety of children and seniors “has to be paramount.”

“We just think there’s a different way to do it. That’s why we oppose this bill,” Hensley said. “We think we should be moving away from locating polling places at schools.”

Ruiz agreed that schools aren’t ideal polling places, but said finding other spaces that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as law requires, can be challenging.

“In many places, there are no alternate locations outside of schools,” Ruiz told the New Jersey Monitor. “Since these spaces are being used to conduct civic activity, we are charged with the important task of doing everything possible to protect those who occupy them, our children.”

Her bill “will enable superintendents to take the steps they feel necessary to secure their buildings and protect their students on election day,” she added.

Other groups that joined Patel and Hensley in lobbying legislators to reject the bill include New Jersey Working Families, New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, the NAACP NJ State Conference, and the Education Law Center.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.