Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly pushed back on Republicans who accused Democrats of stoking the public's fears of police during a contentious debate in the Assembly on Oct. 27, 2022. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Assembly lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would allow police officers at polling places in schools and senior residential centers in New Jersey.
The bill aims to roll back a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in January banning police from polling places altogether. While voting rights advocates celebrated that law as a victory against voter suppression, legislators just weeks later introduced the rollback bill after worrying the new law leaves students and seniors — two vulnerable groups that have been targeted by mass shooters around the country — unprotected.
The bill sparked 45 minutes of fiery speeches from both sides of the aisle Thursday, with a handful of white Republican lawmakers denying that police make anyone feel uncomfortable anywhere.
It started with Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) objecting to an amendment in the bill that would require officers to be in plainclothes while at polling stations in schools. He demanded that Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), standing as one of the bill’s prime sponsors, explain why cops couldn’t wear uniforms to stand guard at the polls.
“The sponsors of this bill have a bias toward law enforcement, and I think it’s a disgrace!” Wirths said. “Shame on you!”
His Republican colleagues followed suit, demanding evidence of voter intimidation and accusing Democrats of being anti-police.
“I think police being at a polling station even in uniform is a welcome sight, not something that would dissuade anybody from wanting to vote or certainly make them turn around and leave at the sight of a police officer,” Assemblyman Gerald Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth) said.
The plainclothes requirement makes it seem like “being in uniform is an embarrassment or a stigma,” Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) agreed. “Are we driven by the irrational fears of others?”
Such comments left some Democrats bristling.
“This is not a referendum on police,” Reynolds-Jackson said. “I have never downgraded our law enforcement, and it is offensive that you have said I have done that. It’s offensive! And so shame on you!”
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) reminded his GOP colleagues about slavery, segregation, police violence against African Americans during the civil rights era, ongoing voter suppression laws in other states, police brutality, and more.
“It’s a fact that George Floyd had a knee on his neck for 9 minutes and 28 seconds. So you wonder why people have fear?” Wimberley said. “I talk to you from experience. I talk to you as a father of four young Black men who unfortunately get pulled over a little too often.”
Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) pointed to the “polarization along racial lines” that has grown in recent years as he urged the bill’s Republican detractors to understand why some people could fear seeing police at the polls.
“I do have a hard time not understanding that everyone’s lived experience is not the same,” he said.
In between the sparring, Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Passaic) unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to add libraries, houses of worship, and community centers to the list of polling places police would be permitted to guard. Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Morris) urged legislators to consider requiring schools that serve as polling places to close altogether on Election Day.
Finally, the vote was called — and it passed unanimously, prompting quite a few sounds of exasperation and surprise on the Assembly floor before the room erupted in applause.
The Senate approved an earlier version of the bill in June. It must now approve the amended version approved by the Assembly before it heads to Murphy’s desk.
An earlier version of this story should have said the bill will now head to the Senate for approval.
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