The use of “poll watchers” and law enforcement officers stationed at polling sites intimidating Black voters is becoming a major concern in the Garden State. Several Black legislators hope to change that with a new bill.

Assemblymembers Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Benjie Wimberly and Linda Carter are sponsoring legislation aiming to protect voters from intimidation. The bill was approved today by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee and will be given further consideration by the Assemblyspeaker.

New Jersey battled with voter suppression during the state’s 1981 gubernatorial election of that year, voters came across patrols, many of them uniformed and armed, who were part of the National Ballot Security Task Force.

A consent decree between the Republican National Committee and New Jersey Republican State Committee with the Democratic Party counterparts to mandate the review of ballot security actions by the federal government ended the voter intimidation efforts. The decree expired in 2018 and has not been renewed.

“Especially during these times, with heightened awareness about police violence against Black people, there is no place for law enforcement at voting locations,” said Henal Patel, director of Democracy & Justice at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Whether intentional or not, having law enforcement near polling places or ballot drop boxes can intimidate voters and cause people to avoid casting their ballots.”

Reynolds-Jackson said the recent 2020 presidential election and former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric have heightened concerns of current voter intimidation. Before the 2020 election, Trump strongly expressed in an interview his intention to deploy sheriffs, law enforcement officers and U.S. attorneys to polling sites around the country.

“We are in unprecedented times in this nation,” she said. “A voter’s right to cast their ballot in person may very well be jeopardized as made clear in past commentary by former President Trump. Voter intimidation tactics and suppression have no place in New Jersey. We’ve seen the punitive effects of these anti-civil rights strategies in other states as well as in New Jersey in the past.”

The new bill would prohibit a district board of elections, and any of its members from requesting law enforcement officers to be detailed to polling places. Law enforcement agencies would be prohibited from assigning law enforcement officers to any district board to enforce the election laws, maintain order, “peace and quiet” during the hours of registry and election. Law enforcement officers would not be able to serve as members of the district board of elections unless they are off duty.

“A voter’s right to cast their ballot is a constitutional right that should remain unencumbered and unthreatened,” said Wimberly. “Voter intimidation and suppression comes in many forms and can happen anywhere. We’ve seen this done before right here in New Jersey. This legislation makes it clear that there’s no place for these tactics here in any election.