TRENTON — With early voting now the law, on top of earlier initiatives such as online voter registration and eligibility for people on probation or parole, one of the next election changes on reformers’ priority list would prevent police officers from being stationed within 100 feet of polling places and ballot drop boxes.

The idea’s supporters say it’s necessary to guard against voter suppression in places their presence makes people uncomfortable. But critics say the idea is misguided and anti-police.

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Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, said the prospect of exposing police officers to a fourth-degree charge is an outrageous thing to do officers whose presence should only worry people committing a crime.

“The presumption here is that they’re bad people. We wouldn’t have a bill if we didn’t presume that,” Wirths said.

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson, D-Mercer, said police could respond to calls for help or even do a walk-through, just not be sitting inside polling locations the whole day.

“When you walk into a polling location and you see law enforcement in uniform, with a gun, with a battalion and pepper spray, that is straight voter intimidation,” Reynolds Jackson said.

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Middlesex, said the bill isn’t partisan but rather supportive of residents who want to feel comfortable voting without fear of suppression.

“This is not an anti-police bill in any way at all. This is a pro-democracy bill,” Zwicker said.

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, disagreed though acknowledged that people from different parts of the state view law enforcement differently.

“This to me feels like an attack on our police officers,” DiMaso said. “They are good people. They are not out there to get anybody or intimidate anybody at the polls, in my opinion.”

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said most law enforcement officers do their jobs well and that nobody is against the police.

“But we also understand the history, and we also see ominous national trends and understanding that there are forces out there that are trying to, in my view, act in very undemocratic ways and to tear this country apart by tearing at the basic liberty and freedom that we have, which is the right to vote,” Conaway said.

The bill, A4655, was passed by the Assembly last week in a 44-25 vote, with three votes to abstain. The companion version of the bill has been through its committee hearing and awaits a full Senate vote.

Police officers would be able to vote, respond to calls for specific problems and help with the transportation of ballots but otherwise wouldn’t be allowed within 100 feet of a polling place or ballot drop box.

Drop boxes cannot be put inside police stations or within 100 feet of a station’s entrance or exit, under the bill, though ones that may already have been permanently installed can remain if the county’s board of commissioners votes to approve it.

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Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-Ocean, said the restriction on police would make every polling place a soft target for mischief – or worse.

“If I’m a terrorist, where am I going to go? I’m going to go where the law said the police can’t go,” McGuckin said. “And I’m going to find people exercising their rights in a democracy to vote because that’s what’s the antithesis of what they believe.”

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