Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued guidance on the role of law enforcement personnel in the upcoming election, seeking to avoid the types of voter intimidation and suppression carried out by off-duty police in the state’s 1981 gubernatorial election.
The guidance makes clear that on-duty police officers may not enforce election law absent direction from local board workers or act as a challenger for any candidate, political party or referendum.
“As Election Day approaches and voting has begun across the country, we already have begun to hear allegations of voter intimidation in other states,” Grewal said. “Today we clarify how law enforcement leaders across the state can best support local and state officials in maintaining the integrity of our voting system, and protecting the right to vote, in accordance with the highest ideals of our democracy.”
Off-duty officers are allowed to serve as poll workers or challengers, but it is a criminal offense to wear a police uniform or openly carry a weapon while doing so.
In 1981, the Republican National Committee recruited teams composed of armed off-duty police and sheriffs officers in primarily non-white, Democratic neighborhoods.
The move prompted a lawsuit from the Democratic National Committee, which claimed the task force illegally harassed and intimidated voters, both violations of the Voting Rights Act.
The suit ended with a consent decree barring further such deployments that lapsed in Jan. 2018, and some Democrats now worry that President Donald Trump could move to adopt similar tactics for November’s election.
Grewal said New Jersey hasn’t verified significant incidents of voter intimidation or obstruction, though other states have.
Election officials may ask police to remove or arrest individuals who violate election laws or disobey election officials’ lawful commands, but officers are not allowed to take such actions at their own discretion.
Election officials — either local board workers, election superintendents or employees within the New Jersey Department of State — administer election law in New Jersey.
Grewal requested prosecutors in each of the state’s 21 counties appoint an assistant prosecutor as the point person on election-related matters.