Police push back against bill keeping them from polling places
TRENTON — A push in the Legislature to keep law enforcement officers from being at polling places or near ballot drop boxes unless they’re specifically called raised the ire of police unions at a Statehouse hearing.
The bill, S2923, was amended to take effect immediately after it’s enacted, raising the prospect it could be in place before this year’s vote ends Nov. 3. State Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, the bill’s lead sponsor, said that’s the impetus and goal.
“It’s important that we put this safeguard in effect so that nobody will be intimidated and there will be no voter suppression,” Turner said at Monday’s Senate state government committee meeting.
Turner said this year’s election is the first presidential election since the expiration of a 1982 consent decree preventing Republicans from repeating the Ballot Security Task Force efforts employed in the 1981 gubernatorial race, which included off-duty, armed police officers patrolling polls and challenging voters in minority neighborhoods in New Jersey.
Turner said President Donald Trump and his son, Donald Jr., have “called on people to monitor the polls and to do what they felt that they should do in order to (prevent) what they termed voter fraud.”
“Now, if we were not told the president was calling on people to more or less take matters into their own hands in terms of protecting the polls, then we wouldn’t need this legislation,” Turner said.
Sean Lavin, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police’s New Jersey Labor Council, said there weren’t issues with police intimidation at polls in 2018 or 2019 after the consent decree ended and that the bill would prevent law enforcement from legitimate duties and polling-place protections.
“I’m a little confused. 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. “I’m at a loss to understand how something that the president or his son would say would translate to law enforcement officers suppressing the vote in New Jersey.”
The FOP endorsed Trump last month, as it did in 2016. The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association endorsed Trump in August.
Lavin said that just because the union endorsed Trump doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily vote that way and isn’t an endorsement of all his positions.
“The president can say what he wants. That doesn’t mean we’re going to run around and do something because of that. That’s not who we are,” Lavin said. “A lot of these issues you’re seeing here today, they don’t happen in New Jersey for a reason.”
Last Friday, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued guidance to local and county law enforcement leaders about election activities and protections against voter intimidation.
Henal Patel, a program director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said some voters, in particular minority populations, have anxiety about seeing police officers at polling places. She said unintended consequences have the same impact as intended ones.
“I’m not suggesting that police officers in New Jersey are intending to do this,” Patel said. “The question is: Are the voters concerned about it? And they are – so much so that the attorney general felt the need to actually issue this to clarify that for the public.”
Dale Florio, a lobbyist representing county clerks and election officials, said the legislation would pose multiple issues if enacted in its current form, including the need to relocate polling places and existing ballot drop boxes that are within 100 feet of law-enforcement agencies.
A companion bill was scheduled to be taken up by an Assembly committee Monday but was instead transferred to a different committee. That panel was supposed to take it up Thursday, but its meeting has been canceled.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.