Amid fears of voter intimidation, N.J. moves to limit police at polls

A line of police motorcycles

A line of police motorcycles. (Brave Heart/Creative Commons CC BY NC ND 2.0)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

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Public concerns over policing and law enforcement support for President Donald Trump prompted a state Senate committee to endorse legislation that would limit law enforcement presence at the polls, even as a police union representative called “reprehensible” suggestions that they would try to intimidate voters.

The Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee approved along party lines S-2923, which would prevent police from providing general protection of polling locations, serving as election challengers unless they are on the ballot or standing within 100 feet of a polling place unless they are voting. Police could respond to a disturbance or other specific issue that occurs at a polling place if their assistance is requested.

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said her bill is necessary, given the expiration of a consent decree that had prevented Republicans from using off-duty police officers to discourage voters as the party did in urban areas and places with large Black and Hispanic populations in 1981, as well as recent remarks by Trump and his son encouraging supporters to “monitor” polling places. Most of the bill’s provisions would take effect immediately, although with only two weeks until Election Day it is unclear whether the measure could clear all legislative hurdles and be signed by then.

“If people are going to vote and they see a policeman there, they may keep on going past and not go inside,” Turner said.

Cops challenge assumptions

The hearing was at times contentious, as when Sean Lavin, executive director of the state Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, challenged Turner’s assumptions.

“Because the president or his son made some statement doesn’t mean that New Jersey law enforcement is going to enact that statement,” Lavin said, adding voter suppression by anyone is already illegal. “I’m at a loss to even understand how something that the president or his son would say would translate to law enforcement officers suppressing the vote in New Jersey.”

Turner pointed out that Trump has boasted at rallies that “law enforcement has endorsed him.” The Fraternal Order of Police announced its endorsement last month.

“Just because my organization endorses a candidate doesn’t mean I vote that way,” Lavin shot back. “It doesn’t mean that because a candidate says that I have the endorsement of law enforcement and then makes another statement that law enforcement would carry out that statement. I find it incredulous.”

Henal Patel, of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said some people are concerned about encountering police at the polls, and particularly this year for a number of reasons.

“In light of the current climate and the growing awareness of racism around policing, we must recognize that Black and brown communities often do not see law enforcement as reassuring,” she said. “We are in the midst of perhaps the most important election in our lives that has significantly increased anxiety in voters.”

She said that her organization has already heard concerns from voters about potential intimidation, citing worries of some in Lawrence Township that an officer is stationed near the ballot drop-box. Lavin said that is a special officer whose job it is to check the temperature and get the names of those wishing to enter township offices due to concerns about COVID-19 and has nothing to do with the drop box, which happens to be placed outside the municipal building.

Voters on parole or probation

Patel also noted that 83,000 people on parole or probation regained the right to vote earlier this year, and this will be the first presidential general election during which they can vote.

“We need to recognize that whether intentional or not, having a police presence near a voting site can be intimidating,” she said. “Unfortunately, this year, voters are concerned that law enforcement could be present intentionally to intimidate. The president recently said that he would send law enforcement to some polling places to address non-existent voting fraud … Voters are justifiably concerned and the state must step up to reassure voters by passing this legislation.”

Lavin said that a four-page guidance document sent last Friday by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to all law enforcement heads and county prosecutors addresses any concerns and obviates the need for the legislation. Grewal’s guidance acknowledges Patel’s comment and states, “existing state law limits the involvement of both on- and off-duty law enforcement officers in elections” and that election officials primarily have the “responsibility for preserving the peace and maintaining good order in polling places.”

Grewal’s letter gives guidance about existing laws, which allow police to be stationed at polling places at the request of elections officials. Turner’s bill seeks to change those laws. And she stated that a change in the laws is necessary because future attorneys general could provide different guidance.

Asked about possible voter intimidation during a Monday media briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy acknowledged that Trump’s rhetoric has been inflammatory.

‘Words matter’

“This is for the president; this is for anybody in a position of responsibility: Words matter,” Murphy said. “So please, as we’re coming up 15 days from an election, regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on, we’ve got to be responsible. We cannot be inflaming tensions, which are already high.”

Murphy said he met late last week with Secretary of State Tahesha Way and Office of Homeland Security Director Jared Maples “about making sure the election process is safe and secure and that we don’t have things like intimidation occurring.”

Speaking last week during a news conference with the lead election officials from several other states, Way said she, Maples and state police also have had discussions with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigations about election security, though she did not provide any details.

Maples testified before the Assembly Homeland Security Committee less than an hour before the Senate considered Turner’s bill and outlined some of the ways his office is dealing with potential election problems ranging from disinformation to actual threats.

“NJOHSP has continued to support the continuity of operations and contingency-planning efforts related to elections, including technical planning and participation in numerous virtual exercises on potential election disruptions,” he said. The office has conducted security assessments of county elections offices and equipment and “provided written physical and security assessment reports that included recommended mitigation options.” And it has provided online training to county elections officials and helped develop “a general physical and cybersecurity preparedness guidance document to county elections offices.”

Last month, the office issued a new threat assessment report that presents a worrisome picture of what the election may bring.

“Supporters will use the presidential election as an opportunity to spread extremist rhetoric online that promotes their ideologies, encourages election interference and motivates followers to conduct violence regardless of which candidate is elected,” the report states. “Election result delays and recounts could result in protests and attempts to occupy election offices, similar to tactics used at state capitols during COVID-19 lockdowns.”

The state Professional Firefighters Association and groups representing county clerks and elections officials also oppose Turner’s bill. That most of the changes would take effect immediately and potentially for the upcoming election especially concerned county officials, said Dale Florio, a lobbyist who represents the groups.

Turner’s bill would also prohibit electioneering within 100 feet of ballot drop boxes, as it is prohibited within 100 feet of a polling location, and prevent the placement of these boxes for future elections within 100 feet of a police department.

The Assembly version of the bill had been posted for a hearing, as well, but legislative staff say it will be considered on Thursday instead.

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