Committee approves bill to permit police at polling places in public schools

Critics warned measure could dampen voter turnout

By: - September 30, 2022 12:07 pm

New Jersey lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday Thursday that would let police officers into public schools where voting takes place. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

An Assembly panel unanimously approved a partial rollback of a New Jersey law banning police officers from polling places, advancing a bill Thursday that would let authorities into public schools where voting takes place.

Voting advocates, civil rights groups, and several formerly incarcerated people urged lawmakers to reject the bill, warning it would suppress voter turnout among New Jerseyans of color, especially those with criminal histories.

“As a formerly incarcerated person, I can tell you firsthand putting police, whether in plainclothes or uniformed, at any polling place is also going to depress turnout of formerly incarcerated people,” Jim Sullivan, deputy policy director for the ACLU of New Jersey, told committee members.

A study published in December, the first to measure the effect of police at polls on U.S. election participation, found the presence of authorities outside a voting station decreased Black turnout by 32%.

The issue is particularly pressing in the face of a 2019 law that restored suffrage rights for residents on parole or probation, a group numbering more than 80,000.

In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law barring on- and off-duty police officers from being within 100 feet of a polling station or ballot drop box absent an emergency, a bid to prevent voter intimidation.

The bill included an exception allowing senior living facilities that double as polling places to request a police officer be stationed there if the facility reports a threat or other safety concern. The bill advanced Thursday would add a similar carveout for public schools, alarming opponents.

“The current law is good law,” said Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Every concern that is being articulated today was articulated back then and has been addressed by the bill which is now law.”

New Jersey has a history of police intimidation at the polls. In 1981, the Republican National Committee launched the infamous so-called Ballot Security Task Force, which stationed armed, off-duty police officers outside polling places in New Jersey cities in a bid to dampen turnout among heavily Democratic nonwhite voters.

Some believed the task force and its effect on turnout won Republican Tom Kean Sr. the election against his Democratic opponent Jim Florio. The Republican National Committee and its state counterpart entered into a consent decree barring similar tactics the following year.

The consent decree’s 2017 expiration spurred the passage of the initial bill barring police presence at the polls, which includes an exception to allow authorities to respond to emergencies at voting stations.

But concerns over school safety and difficulties finding locations to house voting machines on Election Day have pushed lawmakers to consider tweaks.

“We’ve had so many examples of violence in schools, and we just would hate to see it there,” Dale Florio, a lobbyist representing election officials, told the New Jersey Monitor. “We’re having a hard time now keeping schools as polling locations. A lot of schools are just saying it’s not worth taking the chance.”

The bill to allow police at polling places in public schools was introduced in June, roughly a month after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The New Jersey Association of Election Officials and New Jersey School Boards Association both supported the legislation.

In addition to poll worker shortages, election officials in some New Jersey counties have faced difficulties securing polling places during the pandemic. Those difficulties have since become a “constant struggle” — one that’s not getting better, Florio said.

Not all schools where voting takes place will need police officers. Some will close on Election Day, and mandating the rest follow suit could be a compromise.

“Maybe we just have a school holiday on Election Day, which would make it easier for everybody,” Florio said. “Some districts do do that. It’s become a local choice. We’ve suggested maybe — at least in a presidential year — considering doing it that way.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.