Nine months after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law banning police at polling sites on election days in New Jersey, state lawmakers have been advancing a bill that would once again allow officers at schools and senior centers that operate as voting locations.
Sponsors say the protection is needed in the wake of recent mass shootings. But voting and civil rights advocates warn the move would be a step back after taking a step forward, reopening the door to suppressing voters of color.
The new measure (S2912) would allow police officers to be present at senior residential centers and schools in New Jersey that double as polling places under certain circumstances. It would also require schools in the state to create Election Day security plans.
The sites would have to request police be there for security and officers can’t be in uniform, according to the Assembly bill and Senate Democrats.
Murphy, a Democrat, signed the initial law in January after it passed the Democratic-controlled state Legislature largely along party lines. It says both plain-clothed and uniformed police must keep at least 100 feet from polling stations or drop boxes in New Jersey — a move advocates say would help prevent voter intimidation.
The new bill was introduced in June, about a month after 19 students and two teachers were killed in the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Earlier this year, some schools in New Jersey switched to virtual learning on Election Day in response to the mass shootings.
“As a parent, if there were voting machines in the school, I would feel uncomfortable on those days when you could have upwards of thousands of people who come into buildings where there are hundreds of children,” state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, one of the main sponsors of the legislation, told NJ Advance Media.
Ruiz said she fielded calls from both parents and school superintendents citing similar concerns. Both the New Jersey Association of Election Officials and the New Jersey School Boards Association support the legislation.
“I think this creates that balance,” Ruiz said.
The state Assembly Appropriations Committee approved the bill 11-0 on Thursday. It must now passed both the full Assembly and Senate before Murphy could decide whether to sign it into law. Though it cleared the Senate 40-0 in June, it has since been amended and must pass the chamber again.
The Legislature would need to pass it and Murphy would need to sign it within the next two weeks for it to take effect by this Election Day, Nov. 8.
But Henal Patel, director of the Democracy & Justice Program of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice points to a study by a professor at the University of Cincinnati published last December that found that having authorities outside a polling station decreased Black turnout by 32%.
She said the current law banning police presence at New Jersey polls is “reasonable.”
“One hundred feet is not that large of a distance,” Patel said. “It’s the same bar on electioneering.”
Patel also noted the law allows for police to enter a polling place if there is an emergency.
“It’s really unfortunate before we have one election cycle under this new law, we’re already rolling it back,” she said. “We’re hearing it’s about safety. We absolutely believe we need to keep our kids safe — and our democracy safe.”
Yannick Wood, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told the Assembly Appropriations committee the bill would “roll back the progress we’ve all made” and that formerly imprisoned people on parole might especially avoid voting because of police presence.
Wood added the measure could add “substantial cost” to local governments throughout the state because of overtime for officers. There is no fiscal estimate for the bill.
The law Murphy signed was born out of events that occurred more than four decades ago, when the Republican National Committee amid a New Jersey gubernatorial race in 1981 between Republican Tom Kean and Democrat Jim Florio established the so-called Ballot Security Task Force.
The stated mission of the group, which consisted of police officers, was to prevent voter fraud and secure the election.
But state Sen. Shirley Turner, a main sponsor of the current law, said the actual intent of the group was voter intimidation in minority communities.
“I remember back in 1981 when Republicans had plain-clothed police officers at the polls,” Turner, D-Mercer, told NJ Advance Media the day the original bill passed the Senate. “It was intimidation. They were doing it to suppress the vote.”
Turned added in a statement Friday: “To many in the Black community, just the sight of a police officer is enough to make the hair on the back of their neck stand up. Regardless of the intention officers may have in visiting polling places to check-in, the reality is their presence will make individuals feel unsafe and could discourage them from participating in the election.”
Kean went on to win that year’s race by fewer than 2,000 votes among the more than 2.3 million people who cast ballots.
The New Jersey Democratic State Committee sued after the election. They alleged the task force targeted Black and Hispanic polling places. A subsequent consent decree barred the practice of police monitoring polling stations. But it recently expired, which is why Turner and others argued the current law is necessary.
Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, told critics at Thursday’s voting session the goal of the updated bill is to “protect two vulnerable populations: our children and our seniors.”
“We need to protect them,” McKnight said. “School shootings. Shouldn’t we want to have police officers there?”
Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said removing police from polling stations “criminalizes and stigmatizes” police officers and the “vast majority” of residents feel “very comfortable” around police officers.
“Don’t you think we’re catering to a very small minority over a remote possibility (of voter intimidation)?” Webber asked.
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Brent Johnson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at @johnsb01.