A bill barring police officials from polling places stalled just as it was coming to a vote in the Senate last week after objections from Democratic lawmakers in urban districts who feared the measure could cause backlash from seniors who wanted law enforcement in their building lobbies.
“I understood in some of the other urban districts they have police officers that are stationed in senior citizens’ high-rise buildings, where they go downstairs to vote,” said State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrenceville), the bill’s sponsor. “They have always had that, and they tell me the seniors want that kind of security, that kind of protection for fear that something may occur and they have police protection right there in the building.”
The bill, along with ones establishing early in-person voting and allowing county election boards to determine ballot drop box placement, was to be voted on in both chambers last Thursday. It would have barred on- and off-duty officers from loitering within 100 feet of a polling place, with exceptions for certain emergency situations.
It passed the Assembly in a narrow 44-25 vote after tense talks on the floor but was pulled from the Senate board list before getting a vote.
“This just cropped up at the last minute,” Turner said. “So we have to go back and see what we can do in the way of amending it to make it palatable for those members who were uncomfortable with the bill as it existed with no carveout for the police being in senior citizens’ buildings.”
The bill is an effort to prevent a recurrence of the infamous National Ballot Security Task Force, a group of off-duty police and sheriff’s officers who were stationed outside of polling places in heavily Democratic — and largely non-white — districts in 1981.
The group, founded and bankrolled by the Republican National Committee, spawned a federal lawsuit from the Democratic National Committee that entered with a consent decree that banned national and state Republicans from employing the tactic.
That agreement lapsed in 2017, and a request by Democrats to extend it was denied in 2018.
The bill is being amended, though it’s too early to say what the final language and procedural track will look like, Turner said, though she added she expects the Senate to advance the bill in June, when it next convenes for a session.
Since it’s being amended, the bill will have to clear the Assembly again.
It’s possible the new version will have trouble moving through the legislature. Democrats may be hesitant to move the bill for fear of attacks over police, like attacks over the Defund the Police movement that defined congressional Republicans’ offensive strategy last year.
Turner’s concern was less with the politics and more with the policy.
“Well, you never know,” she said when asked if she feared the bill might die in her chamber. “I guess it really depends upon how we can satisfy those people who seem to have some concern about not having police there in senior citizens’ buildings.”