Should uniformed police officers be allowed in polling places? The New Jersey Assembly held an impassioned and often deeply personal debate on that subject today, shortly before passing a bill loosening certain restrictions on plainclothes police officers with a unanimous 72-0 vote.
At the beginning of this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that required both uniformed and plainclothes officers to stay at least 100 feet away from polling locations in most cases.
The law’s proponents said it would address the long history of police officers being used to intimidate voters of color, most famously in the 1981 gubernatorial race, when the so-called Ballot Security Task Force was used to depress Black turnout. Republicans, however, lambasted the law as anti-law enforcement and potentially unsafe.
Responding in part to those criticisms, the Democrats who originally sponsored the law proposed another bill in February allowing plainclothes officers to be present at senior residential centers and schools being used as polling places. Having passed through two committees this fall – over the significant objections of progressive groups – that bill came up for a vote before the full Assembly today.
But even though it represented something of a concession to their objections, Republican legislators used discussion on the bill to register their strong opposition to the overall state law.
“The sponsors of this bill have a bias towards law enforcement, and I think it’s a disgrace,” Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Wantage) said. “This isn’t just politics. Somebody could have blood on their hands because they didn’t have the guts to make sure our people are protected.”
Democrats took exception to the Republicans’ claims, especially Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Trenton), the sponsor of both today’s bill and the original law.
“This is not a referendum on police,” Reynolds-Jackson said. “I have never once said anything bad about the police, so please strike that from the record. I’ve never said that. You’re putting words into my mouth… It is offensive that you have said that I have done that. Shame on you.”
Implicit – and sometimes explicit – in the many floor speeches, 22 in all, were the differing personal experiences of different legislators. Republicans, most of them white, said they had no personal issues with police in their polling locations and asked for the decision to be left up to municipalities; Democrats, many of them Black, countered by citing the complex and often deeply negative history between minority communities and the police.
“Through the history of America, police have played a major role in those 246 years [of slavery]. Police have played a major role in those 89 years [of segregation],” Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson) said. “So when I talk to you about it, I talk from experience. I talk to you as a father of four young Black men that unfortunately get pulled over a little too often.”
“I am not intimidated by seeing a police officer in uniform,” Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich) responded. “I hear you, I understand you, and I feel for you. But you have to listen to me and understand my district. We welcome police officers.”
But the legislation that was under discussion evidently was not controversial in and of itself, since all it does is provide an exception to the existing law. After 45 minutes of debate, every single legislator present voted to pass the bill.