Menu Close
Democrats filed suit against Republicans in 1981 for allegedly sending armed patrols to polling stations during the New Jersey gubernatorial race. Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images

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.

As a professor who teaches and writes about New Jersey history, I’m alarmed by the expiration because I know that Republicans in 1981 relied not only on armed poll watchers but also on a history of white vigilantism and intimidation in the Garden State. These issues resonate today in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and continued GOP attempts to suppress the 2020 vote in numerous states.

Former U.S. Rep. John Lewis with House Democrats before passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act to eliminate potential state and local voter suppression laws, Dec. 29, 2019. The Senate has not taken up the bill. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Republican ‘ballot security’ plan

Considered an early referendum on Ronald Reagan’s presidency, New Jersey’s 1981 gubernatorial race held special meaning for Republicans nationwide. Kean – with campaign manager Roger Stone at the helm – promised corporate tax cuts and relied heavily on Reagan’s endorsement.

To secure victory, state and national Republican party officials devised a project they claimed would prevent Democratic cheating at the polls.

In the summer of 1981, the Republican National Committee sent an operative named John A. Kelly to New Jersey to run the ballot security effort. Kelly had first been hired by the Republican National Committee in 1980 to work in the Reagan campaign, and he served as one of the RNC’s liaisons to the Reagan White House.

Later, after he was revealed as the organizer of the National Ballot Security Task Force – and after The New York Times discovered that he had lied about graduating from Notre Dame and had been arrested for impersonating a police officer – Republicans distanced themselves from him.

In August 1981, under the guise of the National Ballot Security Taskforce, Kelly sent about 200,000 letters marked “return to sender” to voters in heavily Black and Latino districts. Those whose letters were returned had their names added to a list of voters to be challenged at the polls on Election Day, a tactic known as voter caging.

In the Newark area, Kelly produced a list of 20,000 voters whom he deemed potentially fraudulent. He then hired local operatives to organize patrols, ostensibly to keep such fraud at bay. To run the Newark operation, he hired Anthony Imperiale.

Newark’s white vigilante

Imperiale, in turn, hired off-duty police officers and employees of his private business, the Imperiale Security Police, to patrol voting sites in the city.

The gun-toting, barrel-chested former Marine had first adopted the security role during Newark’s 1967 uprising – five days of protests and a deadly occupation of the city by police and the National Guard following the police beating of a Black cab driver. During the uprising, Imperiale organized patrols of his predominantly white neighborhood to keep “the riots” out.

Soon, Imperiale became a hero of white backlash politics. His opposition to police reform earned him widespread support from law enforcement. And his fight against Black housing development in Newark’s North Ward delighted many of his neighbors. By the end of the 1970s, Hollywood was making a movie based on his activities.

Actress Frances Fisher arrives to speak at a downtown rally in Los Angeles, California on May 19, 2016, to bring attention to voter suppression. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

After serving as an independent in both houses of the state legislature, Imperiale became a Republican in 1979. Two years later, he campaigned with Kean. Once in office, the new governor named Imperiale director of a new one-man state Office of Community Safety – an appointment often interpreted as reward for Imperiale’s leadership of the ballot efforts in Newark, but stymied when Democrats refused to fund the position.

Outcome and legacy

Despite Kean’s slim margin of victory, Democrats at the time were careful not to claim that Republican voter suppression efforts had decided the election. (In 2016, the former Democratic candidate claimed they did indeed make the difference.)

Rather, the state and national Democratic committees brought suit against the Republican National Committee to ensure it couldn’t again use such methods anywhere. For nearly 40 years – through amendments and challenges – the resulting consent decree helped curtail voter suppression tactics.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

Since the decree’s expiration in 2018, Republicans have ramped up their recruitment of poll watchers for the 2020 presidential election. Last November, Trump campaign lawyer Justin Clark – calling the decree’s absence “a huge, huge, huge, huge deal” for the party – promised a larger, better funded and “more aggressive” program of Election Day operations.

The Trump campaign is claiming, as Republicans did in 1981, that Democrats “will be up to their old dirty tricks” and has vowed to “cover every polling place in the country” with workers to ensure an honest election and reelect the president.

This November, Republican tactics in 1981 are worth remembering. They demonstrate that the safeguarding of polling places from supposedly fraudulent voters and of public places from Black bodies share not only a logic. They also share a history.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 115,500 academics and researchers from 3,754 institutions.

Register now