NJ may let police back at polling places – but only some of them
TRENTON – Over objections from progressive activists, the Legislature is looking to unwind part of a law limiting police presence at polling places by allowing cops to be stationed at schools and senior centers.
The current restriction keeps police 100 feet away from polling places or drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots, unless they are called to respond to an emergency or are helping with the delivery of election materials such as ballots at the end of the day.
The law was enacted just nine months ago, responding to concerns about the prospect of voter intimidation among some minority residents uncomfortable with the presence of law enforcement after a lifetime of disparate treatment.
Security concerns were voiced by opponents during the original debate and were amplified after the massacre in May at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Schools used as polling places were allowed to switch to remote learning for the primary in June.
That has Democrats acting to already change the law to allow police in plain clothes, not regular uniforms, at some polls.
“We do need to have police officers in our schools when it comes to polling. Our schools are targeted. Our schools are places that our children spend 90% of their time,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, who said senior centers are similarly hosts of vulnerable groups that could use the additional protection.
Yannick Wood, director of the criminal justice reform program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said all those concerns were considered when the existing law was written.
“The current law is a good law,” Wood said. “It addressed concerns from Black and other voters of color who had concerns about going to voting sites because of law enforcement presence.”
Wood says his group has gotten complaints about police at polls in Monmouth, Hudson, Mercer, Union, Cumberland and Burlington counties. The complaints weren’t made to police – but then again, it was the police that made the people feel uncomfortable.
The bill is advancing unanimously through the Legislature but is nevertheless the subject of sharp, partisan debates. In the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week, the bill was debated for an hour, with Republicans saying Democrats should go further and allow police at all polling places.
“If you can’t understand why people look at that law that we passed and that the governor signed in January and say you’re going the wrong way, you’re really out of touch,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said he’s shocked and dismayed that Republicans disrespect the views of people who have a different lived experience than them.
“Whether you like it or not, persons of color living in this country, many of them, unfortunately, will have negative interactions with police,” Conaway said.
However, even if it passes the change wouldn’t be in place for the Nov. 8 general election because the Senate would have to agree to changes to be bill made by the Assembly, adding in a requirement for schools to develop security plans by January blocking off voting areas from the rest of their building.
The Senate’s next voting session is scheduled for Nov. 21.