Ballot Protection Versus Voter Suppression – Jersey’s Saga

Young NJ voters

In the chaotic close of our first national election campaign  since the violent Jan. 6 Insurrection, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was sending monitors to 64 local jurisdictions in 24 states. In its press release DOJ noted that “since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Division has regularly monitored elections in the field in jurisdictions around the country to protect the rights of voters.”

On the list of 64 was Cobb County, Georgia and in between Wayne County, North Carolina and San Juan County, New Mexico was New Jersey’s Middlesex County. Nothing on the Nov. 7 press release provided any criteria as to how the 64 were chosen out of the 3,143 counties in the nation that had earned this special in-person scrutiny from the DOJ.

“Some of the locations where they have been sent include areas where there were concerns in 2020, as well as locations where issues have already been raised this year,” reported PBS.  Conflicts between some of the listed counties like Maricopa County in Arizona and the DOJ have already made headlines 

“The Justice Department has warned about the potential for violations of the Voting Rights Act after people, sometimes armed or wearing ballistic vests, were monitoring ballot boxes in Maricopa County,” PBS reported. “There was a lawsuit over the activity and the department filed a statement of interest in the case. Federal officials have said that while lawful poll watching can support transparency, ‘ballot security forces’ present a significant risk of voter intimidation.”

BOOTS STILL ON THE GROUND

It’s good to know the DOJ is still on the case years even after the Supreme Court’s misguided Shelby County v. Holder decision that  tossed the most powerful provisions of the VRA. The 5-4 decision struck down the long standing requirement that any jurisdiction with a track record of racial discrimination in voting get “pre-clearance” before they changed how they administered their elections. 

On background, a DOJ spokesperson  wrote Nov. 8 “the decision on when to send election monitors is based upon the facts and circumstances on the ground with respect to a particular jurisdiction in a particular election. For example, in some places, it may be primarily monitoring for language accessibility under the VRA. In other places, it may be primarily monitoring for disability accessibility under the ADA and HAVA.  In still other places, it may include questions about possible discrimination or intimidation.” 

A spokesperson for Middlesex County said that the oversight by the DOJ is a ‘routine thing that happens to ensure that elections in our county address the various languages of our voters and that the polling places meet the requirements for ‘language compliance,’” reported Maureen Berzok with TAPinto.

In 2020, New Jersey election officials were faced with the formidable challenge of administering a national election amidst the COVID pandemic, which had hit out state particularly hard. The New Jersey Election Protection Coalition, consisting of non-profit advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Delaware-New Jersey National Lawyers Guild, Disability Rights New Jersey, and the League of Women Voters of New Jersey,  issued a detailed fact finding after action report on how New Jersey performed. 

“Despite unsupported concerns about voter fraud fueled by political commentary, the election was secure and the public had every reason to trust the verified results,” the analysis concluded. “Without diminishing the overall success of the election in the face of unprecedented challenges, the New Jersey Election Protection Coalition also documented some significant issues that warrant further attention.”

The non-partisan fact finders flagged issues that “were likely caused or exacerbated by the rapidly evolving health crisis” like  “swift changes in election procedures, combined with other consequences of COVID-19—such as a shortage of experienced poll workers” as well as “the consolidation of polling locations, and higher than normal numbers of voters experiencing medical emergencies.” 

Yet, “recurring issues from past elections—such as poll worker mistakes and long lines and late openings at polling places—were again evident in this election cycle,” the report found. 

4.6 million voters cast ballots with  voter turnout increasing 9.4 percent from the 2016, the eighth largest increase in the nation.

MOVING HEAVEN & EARTH

NJEPC researchers identified eleven issues New Jersey voters flagged in 2020; voter registration problems; non-receipt of mail-in ballots or the receipt of incomplete6 mail-in ballots; misinformation from and mistakes by poll workers and on social media; late openings and long lines at polling places; voter intimidation;  lack of accessibility for voters with disabilities; medical conditions, or limited English proficiency; unlawful electioneering, ; lack of voting privacy at polling places, ; deficient signage at polling places, ; hallenges in reaching county election officials; and lack of access to court for disenfranchised voters.

“Voters in Middlesex County appear to have encountered more registration issues than those in other counties,” NJPEC reported. “From October 15 through November Election Protection received 50 inquiries from Middlesex County callers who reported that they did not appear as registered in New Jersey’s registration database. Election Protection volunteers looked up their status in the state database and confirmed that they were missing. Most of these voters said they had registered before the October 13 deadline or had voted in previous elections. By way of comparison, Election Protection received 11 calls related to registration from voters in Camden County—the county with the next highest number of calls about this issue.”

According to the DOJ their polling place presence this year is to be on the lookout for any potential “intimidation of voters” as well as ensuring voters who are disabled or require foreign language materials are all accommodated by election officials as required by law. The DOJ monitors also check to make sure that “voters that assert that are registered and eligible to vote” get a provisional ballot if their name doesn’t appear on the polling books. 

“Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy,” U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Sellinger said in a statement. “Citizens must be free to vote without interference or discrimination, and election officials must be free to serve without threats of violence. In coordination with the Department’s Election Day Program, our office will do everything in its power to protect the rights of voters and election workers throughout New Jersey.” 

“Federal law protects against such crimes as threatening violence against election officials or staff, intimidating or bribing voters, buying and selling votes, impersonating voters, altering vote tallies, stuffing ballot boxes, and marking ballots for voters against their wishes or without their input,” according to a press release issued by Sellinger’s office. “ It also contains special protections for the rights of voters, and provides that they can vote free from interference, including intimidation, and other acts designed to prevent or discourage people from voting or voting for the candidate of their choice.”

“I think New Jersey has come a long way in terms of an improvement of the administration of elections by making them less partisan and more professional,” said Renee Steinhagen, an attorney and executive director of NJ Appleseed, a non-profit public interest law center. “But because elections in New Jersey are so county based, there are still areas where candidate and political parties can exercise undue influence in ways that require our continued vigilance.”

While it is true that there are a substantial number of Republican election denialists on the ballot across the country who firmly believe the 2020 election was stolen and some that even believe the only way to “stop the next steal” is to deploy vigilantes in camouflage at polling places. But it’s ahistorical to assume that this is something new when it’s as old as the racism that has molded our republic that started out expressly prohibiting the majority of the population, composed of women and people of color,  from voting.  

IT HAPPENED HERE

Historically, New Jersey has had its share of a shameful past when it comes to race based voter intimidation. 

In the early 1980s the GOP got in trouble when it fielded something called the National Ballot Security Task Force at polling place in predominately African American neighborhoods. Composed of off-duty police officers who visibly displayed their service revolvers inspected voter registration books on Election Day during what turned out to be one of the closest gubernatorial races in state history with Tom Kean Sr beating Jim Florio by 1700 votes out of 2 million cast. 

At the time, Kean denied any knowledge of the operation. It was led by a Republican special operations man tied to the Reagan  White House, Jack Kelly. A former Family Court officer in New York City, Kelly had been dismissed for improper gun possession; in 1976 he was arrested for impersonating a police officer.

The ballot security squad was created and funded by the regional Republican National Committee which put up $80,000 for it. It was Ed Rollins, then a top aide to Ronald Reagan, who disclosed that Kelly had been hired to conduct background checks early in the Reagan administration. After the 1981 election, UPI reported that Kelly had been “suspended with pay” by the RNC “pending an internal investigation of alleged inaccuracies in a biography he gave the committee.”

“He’s just the ultimate con man,” Rollins told UPI. “He was trying to be the patronage king. He was saying the Republican chairman in New York is recommending somebody for a job. But when we called up thee the Republican chairman had never heard of him.”

In Newark, the National Ballot Task Force effort was led by Anthony Imperiale, who the New York Times described as “race-baiting civic leader” who successfully used his North Ward Citizens Committee to create a self-styled street patrol that used radio-equipped patrol cars to supposedly prevent crime amidst rising racial tensions. Gov. Richard Hughes described Imperiale group as “brown shirts.” 

The Democratic sued alleging that the paramilitary tactic violated the Voting Rights Act. The litigation was resolved with a consent decree that prohibited the RNC from fielding similar patrols without prior court approval. In 1987, the New Jersey consent decree was extended nationwide. 

In 2008, the RNC was rebuffed when it petitioned U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise to lift the decades old consent decree who found that “voter intimidation presents an ongoing threat to the participation of minority individuals in the political process.” In that ruling, Debevoise extended the consent decree eight years.

In 2018, a federal judge lifted the consent decree. 

Joe Wilson, a labor historian and African-American history scholar, says that typically states like New Jersey, that were nominally on the side of the Union against the Confederacy, were actually quite ambivalent about ending slavery and remained resistant to Black political empowerment. 

“Since the 1970s there’s been  a reaction against the civil rights movement by the right wing and well funded people but that whole right wing movement was off the radar like it wasn’t happening,” Wilson said.  “But it’s been brewing since then and when it comes to this issue of voting rights there is no Mason-Dixon Line. Even during slavery-there was slavery up north and down south-and servitude after slavery. It’s more deeply rooted and just because we haven’t looked at it carefully  doesn’t mean it’s not still guiding history.” 

(Visited 367 times, 1 visits today)

One response to “Ballot Protection Versus Voter Suppression – Jersey’s Saga”

  1. As long as New Jersey continues to use electronic computer voting machines and allows ballot harvesting there will be voter suppression against one party. These issues showed up in several hotly contested Congressional races. And, why is it when there is a hotly contested race that the Democrats always seem to win by 54, 55 or 57% to 46, 45 or 43%. Going back over the numbers of Governor wins and Congressional wins by Democrats in hotly contested races, for the past 20 years, these numbers always seem to be overly consistent. Even when there are heavily Republican areas, and when the gerrymandering even favors Republicans. That’s a sign of cheating going on in each Congressional or State Legislative district and/or the state.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

News From Around the Web

The Political Landscape