night image with sign saying 'ballot drop off'

Mark Krasovic for The Conversation: Armed poll watchers: New Jersey’s cautionary tale ahead of the 2020 presidential election

In the history of voter suppression in the United States – including attempts to stop Black and Latino people from voting – Republican tactics in the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial race are worth highlighting.

That November, voters in several cities saw posters at polling places printed in bright red letters. “WARNING,” they read. “This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force.”

And voters soon encountered the patrols themselves. About 200 were deployed statewide, many of them uniformed and carrying guns.

In Trenton, patrol members asked a Black voter for her registration card and turned her away when she didn’t produce it. Latino voters were similarly prevented from voting in Vineland, while in Newark some voters were physically chased from the polls by patrolmen, one of whom warned a poll worker not to stay at her post after dark. Similar scenes played out in at least two other cities, Camden and Atlantic City.

Weeks later, after a recount, Republican Thomas Kean won the election by fewer than 1,800 votes.

Democrats, however, soon won a significant victory. With local civil rights activists, they discovered that the “ballot security” operation was a joint project of the state and national Republican committees. They filed suit in December 1981, charging Republicans with “efforts to intimidate, threaten and coerce duly qualified black and Hispanic voters.”

In November 1982, the case was settled when the Republican committees signed a federal consent decree – a court order applicable to activities anywhere in the U.S. – agreeing not to use race in selecting targets for ballot security activities and to refrain from deploying armed poll watchers.

The 2020 presidential election will be the first in nearly 40 years conducted without the protections afforded by that decree, which expired in 2018 after Democrats failed to convince a judge to renew it.

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