October 17, 2020
TRENTON, NJ (MERCER)–Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today issued guidance to New Jersey’s law enforcement leaders to ensure that voters can cast their ballot in the upcoming election safely and without fear of intimidation. The guidance marks the latest step by the Attorney General’s Office to bolster public confidence in New Jersey’s election process.
Today’s guidance—addressed to the state’s police chiefs, sheriffs, and county prosecutors—emphasizes both specific rules regarding law enforcement activity at polling places, as well as the importance of protecting the state’s voters from intimidation and coercion as they exercise the right to vote. The document expresses concern about reports of voter interference in other states, while noting that significant incidents of similar conduct have not been verified in New Jersey.
“As Election Day approaches and voting has begun across the country, we already have begun to hear allegations of voter intimidation in other states,” said Attorney General Grewal. “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.”
In New Jersey, at the county and local levels civilian election officials, not law enforcement officers, are in charge of administering elections, and at the state level, the Division of Elections within the Office of the Secretary of State is entrusted with election-administration responsibilities—not the Department of Law & Public Safety or the Office of the Attorney General.
During an election, responsibility for preserving the peace and maintaining order in polling places lies principally with the district board officials—poll workers—for the polling place. In addition, county superintendents of elections and their staff have the authority under state law to remove from any polling place or other place where an election is being held any person who violates the state’s election laws or in any way unlawfully interferes with the conduct of an election. In rare cases where such action is necessary, these election officials may call upon police officers to assist with the arrest or removal of individuals who refuse to comply with the election laws or the lawful commands of election officials.
Among other things, the Attorney General’s guidance reiterates that existing New Jersey laws limit the role of both on- and off-duty law enforcement officers in elections to activities necessary to maintain public safety, and to the enforcement of laws securing the right to vote and protecting voters from intimidation and harassment. The guidance further notes that federal as well as state laws protect all members of the public from intimidation and coercion, interfering with the right to cast a vote, or tampering, mutilating, or destroying a ballot box, and that individuals engaged in voter intimidation or obstruction also may be in violation of laws that do not pertain specifically to elections.
Official challengers (sometimes called poll watchers) appointed by the parties have a legally defined role in ensuring that elections are conducted fairly and honestly. However, challengers may not challenge a voter directly; only the elections officials may ask the voter questions. Challengers also may not harass or intimidate voters, engage in electioneering, cause disturbances at polling places, or challenge voters based on their race or ethnicity or how they are expected to vote. Individuals who have not been formally appointed as challengers are not permitted to play that role.
The Attorney General is also requesting that each County Prosecutor designate an Assistant Prosecutor to serve as the principal point of contact on matters relating to the upcoming election, and to facilitate effective communication across law enforcement agencies — including with the designated points of contact for election-related matters in the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability.
In addition to today’s guidance, the Attorney General’s office is taking a number of steps to protect the voting rights of New Jersey residents:
- In August, the States of New Jersey, New York, and Hawaii, along with the City of New York and the City and County of San Francisco, filed a lawsuit to protect the U.S. Postal Service’s timely delivery of the mail from unlawful interference by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. On September 27, the court issued a preliminary injunction blocking changes that would hamstring timely mail delivery during the election season and interfere with New Jersey’s primarily vote-by-mail election.
- The Attorney General’s Office is defending the constitutionality of laws enacted by the Legislature to govern administration of the 2020 general election, so that eligible New Jersey voters can participate in the democratic process despite the ongoing risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 6, a federal district judge issued a decision rejecting a challenge to New Jersey’s laws addressing how vote-by-mail ballots are counted and whether vote-by-mail ballots that are not postmarked or that are mis-postmarked can be counted.
- As is standard practice, the Attorney General’s Division of Law (DOL) is making preparations to provide legal support to the Secretary of State and County Boards of Elections and Superintendents of Elections before, during, and after Election Day. DOL intends to assign hundreds of Deputy Attorneys General to represent and advise election officials on emergent legal questions that may arise while voting occurs and while votes are being counted.
The Attorney General’s actions come as the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (OHSP), led by Director Jared Maples, has issued a new Supplemental Threat Assessment focused on the convergence of COVID-19, nationwide civil unrest, and the 2020 Presidential Election. Among other topics, the Supplemental Threat Assessment projects that domestic extremists will be a high threat heading into 2021 and that nation-state disinformation threats will intensify. In discussing nation-state threat actors’ expanding disinformation campaigns, the OHSP report notes that “[e]fforts to delegitimize the elections and spread dissent among the electorate can include inventing and circulating conspiracy theories about voter fraud, post office failures, ballot errors, miscounting, and criticism or support of frivolous lawsuits challenging the election.”
The Attorney General’s Guidance is posted at http://www.nj.gov/oag/newsreleases20/Election-Guidance-to-NJ-Law-Enforcement-2020-1016.pdf
Residents with concerns about voting and elections are encouraged to call the Division of Elections at its Voting Information & Assistance Line: 877-NJVOTER (877-658-6837). For more information please visit the NJ Division of Elections Voter Information Portal at https://nj.gov/state/elections/vote.shtml