NJ readies for possible Election Day disruptions

Jeff Pillets | November 2, 2020 | NJ Decides 2020
Justice Department plans to watch two counties on Tuesday. Watchdogs say they fear trouble
Nov. 1, 2020: A police officer patrols near a ballot drop box at the municipal building in Wayne. At least one resident complained to police that that she was afraid to cast her vote because of a nearby Trump rally.

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

New Jersey braced Monday for a historic Election Day following a weekend of pro-Trump rallies and caravans that disrupted corners of the state and stoked anxieties over potential intimidation at the polls.

Top law enforcement officials, working with state homeland security officials, said they were positioned to swiftly address any incidents of violence or aggression at polling places or at any of the 329 secure ballot drop boxes across the state.

A force of more than 360 lawyers working for the state attorney general’s office is headed for precincts around the state, with another hundred-plus deputies on call to assist local election offices, said  Steve Barnes, a spokesman for the office.

Without providing details, Barnes said law enforcement officers in New Jersey also continue to track complaints of “online activities and potential disinformation related to the upcoming election.”

“We’re following up on all credible leads,” Sands said.

Federal monitors to Bergen, Middlesex counties

Federal monitors will also be on hand in Bergen and Middlesex counties to observe balloting and intervene in the case of intimidation or violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a news release Monday, included the New Jersey venues on a list of 44 sites across the country that it planned to watch closely on Election Day. Others on the list include polling places in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, Los Angeles and several counties in Florida, Texas and Arizona.

Although the DOJ did not detail why it singled out the New Jersey counties, it said the federal prosecutors and officials in the Civil Rights Division historically focus on preventing voter coercion due to race, color or religion.

“Our federal laws protect the right of all American citizens to vote without suffering discrimination, intimidation, and harassment,” said Eric S. Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday during a media briefing on the COVID-19 crisis that he had not seen the news release from the DOJ.

“It’s not normal as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea how they would have picked those two counties” out of all those in the country, Murphy said. “That mystifies me.”

Governor mystified by federal move

“If there’s a strong rationale for it I will stand to be corrected and I will go on the record and correct myself and reverse course, but this reminds me a little bit of the DOJ steps as it relates to our veterans homes. You know, that was a week before elections. This is a day before an election. I can’t help but think that this is some politics to it. I hope I’m wrong.”

New Jersey voting-rights advocates say the unprecedented mail-in election — more than 3.5 million ballots have already been cast in the state — has so far been peaceful, with no reports of violence or direct intimidation at state voting sites.

But the aggressive show of support among Trump voters in parts of the state over the weekend appears to have caught officials unawares, and is sparking concerns that more may be in store for Election Day.

Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said her office has fielded complaints from Monmouth, Bergen and Passaic counties from voters concerned about butting up against Trump supporters at ballot boxes and polling places.

Trump caravans

Some, she said, found themselves blocked in by the Trump caravans that closed the Garden State Parkway for a spell Sunday and clogged traffic in Lakewood, Fair Lawn, Berkeley and other parts of the state.

“There are people out there concerned about approaching ballot boxes while vocal Trump supporters are out there electioneering,” Burns said. “They’ve just got to be determined and cast their ballot.”

Burns said any threat of intimidation is more likely in urban areas where she fears long lines at polling places could develop on Tuesday. Early indications her group is monitoring appear to show that minority voters in New Jersey have been less likely to vote by mail and could show up at the polls in significant numbers.

Precincts in places like Jersey City, Camden and Newark, she said, might end up with long lines of voters. Such voters would be a target for the “army of poll watchers” President Trump and his surrogates continue to call for across the country.

In 2016, dozens of Trump supporters descended on polling places in Warren and Burlington counties, some bearing long guns and waving Confederate flags. While there were no reports of violence, some voters said the spectacle scared them from the polls.

On Sunday, a caravan of Trump supporters stopped traffic on the northbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway near the Cheesequake Service Area in South Amboy, videos posted on social media showed. Traffic also jammed on Route 9 in Lakewood as hundreds of Trump supporters massed at a county park and a minor league baseball stadium.

Thousands of Trump followers, including a contingent of Orthodox Jews in Monmouth County, joined caravans and road rallies that were advertised on social media sites as “the Trump MAGA drag.”

“I just got home from the Trump car parade and rally in Jersey. Even though it was pouring I’ve never seen so many people come out … thousands! It was absolutely amazing!” tweeted one Trump fan, Ugly Deplorable Chump Deb.

Keeping a ‘close watch’

In Wayne, more than 300 Trump supporters waving flags from their pickup trucks convened Sunday on Valley Road, not far from a ballot box at the municipal building. Police said at least one resident complained that she was afraid to cast her vote.

Men and women attending the rally waved pro-Trump signs and flags to passing drivers. To the sound of blaring music, many honked back in support. Nearby, two vendors sold Trump T-shirts and flags from vans.

The organizer of the rally, Joey DiPasquale, said it was the 10th that he had held in Wayne since July and one of the better attended. “This is where it all began,” said DiPasquale, a retired union contractor from North Haledon.

DiPasquale discounted any claims of intimidation of those going to the distant drop box on the other side of the parking lot. Some trucks with Trump banners were parked within 100 feet, but none appeared to block access to the box. Several people drove up to deposit their ballots and at least a half-dozen police patrolled the area.

“I have seen some people post on Facebook say we’re going to be here intimidating voters,” DiPasquale said. “The law says we can’t be a hundred feet of a polling place, but that’s not a polling place. That’s considered a mailbox, and we could wrap ourselves around that.”

Overall, police said, the event was peaceful, and voters did not seem afraid to use the ballot box.

“We had a close watch on everything,” said Capt. Dan Daly, a detective. “There was no way things were going to get out of hand.”

As the polls open tomorrow, some 3.9 million New Jersey voters are expected to already have cast ballots. That is close to the total that voted in 2016.

For those yet to vote, Gov. Murphy said any attempts at voter intimidation will be met with “strenuously” by law enforcement.

“Any amount of intimidation is categorically, flat out, 100 percent, black and white illegal,” the governor said.

— Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.

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