Deja Vu All Over Again

The 1981 gubernatorial contest in New Jersey promised to be something of a referendum on the Reagan administration elected the prior year. In the summer of 1981, the Republican National Committee (RNC) sent an operative named John A. Kelly to New Jersey to run a ballot security effort. Kelly had first been hired by the RNC in 1980 to work in the Reagan campaign, where he served as one of the RNC’s liaisons to the Reagan White House. Kelly had been sworn as a deputy sheriff in Essex County one month prior to the state election.

A group called the National Ballot Security Task Force was organized under Kelly’s direction and underwritten by the RNC and the state Republican Committee as a means of intimidating voters and discouraging voter turnout among likely Democratic voters. Efforts were focused on major cities where large numbers of minorities lived. Individuals and small groups of armed men, many off-duty sheriffs and police, some wearing police uniforms, operated in Trenton, Vineland, Newark, Camden, and Atlantic City, among others.

A group called the National Ballot Security Task Force was organized under Kelly’s direction and underwritten by the RNC and the state Republican Committee as a means of intimidating voters and discouraging voter turnout among likely Democratic voters. Efforts were focused on major cities where large numbers of minorities lived. Individuals and small groups of armed men, many off-duty sheriffs and police, some wearing police uniforms, operated in Trenton, Vineland, Newark, Camden, and Atlantic City, among others.

The Republican candidate, Thomas Kean, defeated the Democrat, James Florio, by 1,797 votes out of nearly 2 million cast. Two notable historical antecedents were the date–November 3, 1981–and the identity of Kean’s campaign manager–Roger Stone.

In December 1981, The New York Times reported:

The Republican National Committee said it had established the task force to prevent voter fraud at the polls. Task force members patrolled polling places on Election Day and put up posters warning that ”it is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws.” Richard Richards, chairman of the Republican Committee, said that without such an effort, the Democrats ”would have stolen the election.”

Subsequent investigative reporting revealed that Kelly had falsely claimed a college degree from Notre Dame University and had a previous arrest for impersonating a police officer. His employment with the White House was terminated.

In 1982, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) brought suit against the RNC and the state committee, which resulted in a consent decree that year. The Republicans were barred from engaging in further such conduct until its expiration in December 2017. The court-approved consent decree was applicable to activities anywhere in the U.S., barring the targeting of race in selecting targets for ballot security activities, and barring the deployment of armed poll watchers.

Nearly 40 years later, at the first Presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, the incumbent, in response to a question concerning acceptance of the November 3 results, replied:

I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that is what has to happen, I am urging them to do it. I hope it’s going to be a fair election, and if it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent on board, but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.

The expiration of the 1982 consent decree was hailed by one White House campaign lawyer as a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal” and promised a larger, better funded, more aggressive program of election day operations.

The expiration of the 1982 consent decree was hailed by one White House campaign lawyer as a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal” and promised a larger, better funded, more aggressive program of election day operations. The Trump campaign is not shy, claiming, as Republicans did in 1981, that Democrats are seeking to flood the nation with ballots in an effort to rig the campaign. The incumbent’s campaign has pledged to cover every polling place in the country with workers to ensure an honest election and reelect the president.

It will be exactly thirty-nine years to the day on November 3, 2020, since the Ballot Security Task Force sought to make voting conform to the objectives of a political party. The absence of Roger Stone in the campaign is, at least, one bright spot.



Categories: Issues

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