July 28, 2021

“Laura Wooten’s Law” Honors Former Resident

By Donald Gilpin

Laura Wooten

Former Princeton and Lawrence Township resident Laura Wooten, a poll worker for 79 years up to her death in 2019, was honored on July 23 when New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed “Laura Wooten’s Law,” requiring civics instruction at the middle school level throughout the state. Wooten was known as the longest continuously serving poll worker in the history of the United States.

“Laura Wooten’s life is a study in civics,” said Murphy. “She set a tremendous legacy of service. Even more importantly, in her life, born in the segregated South, she persevered through sexism and racism, including right here in New Jersey. Her life stands as evidence that change in a democracy comes not from those who hold elective office, but through the work of ordinary citizens.”

Also speaking at the online signing ceremony, Wooten’s daughter, Yvonne Hill, noted, “She walked off 14 Witherspoon Lane and into history by working the election polls for 79 years. She was just doing what she thought was her duty.”

Hill continued, ”My mother would be so honored to know that a bill would be passed recognizing her legacy of civic responsibility. She always felt that youth should be involved in exercising the hard-fought right to vote and help make change. Her famous words were ‘Don’t say you can’t make a difference. How can you make a difference if you don’t vote?’”

Hill went on to tell the story of how in 2017, at age 96, her mother found out at the last minute that she was needed at the polls on election day. Unable to get a ride on short notice, she set out on foot at 4:30 a.m. in the dark, determined to fulfill her civic duty.

Wooten moved to Princeton from North Carolina at age 4 and graduated from Princeton High School in 1939. She worked as a nurse’s aide at the University Medical Center of Princeton for 18 years, was a teaching assistant at Community Park School, then went to work for Princeton University dining services for more than 25 years.

She did not miss a year working at the polls from 1939 — when her uncle, running for justice of the peace, persuaded her to work for $10 as a “challenger” checking voter IDs — until her death.

Under the new legislation the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University will prepare civics curriculum guidelines for local school boards to ensure that middle and high school students study the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, the function of government, and the role of a citizen in a democratic society. They will also provide professional development for social studies teachers and technical assistance for schools.

“By deepening civics instruction in middle school and high school, we are giving students the tools they need to become more engaged and informed citizens,” said Murphy. “An understanding of civics strengthens our democracy by ensuring an understanding of the role that everyone plays in the future of their community, our state, and our nation. I am proud to sign this bill into law and honor Laura Wooten’s incredible civic legacy.”

Other speakers at the bipartisan Zoom event included Acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan, State Senator Shirley Turner, State Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, and Arlene Gardner, president of the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers. The bill’s sponsors in the state assembly, Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Assemblywoman Linda Carter, and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey issued a joint statement of support for the new legislation.

“Government leaders have been sounding the alarm about the civics crisis in this country for years, and I am grateful that we are finally taking action,” said Turner. “Safeguarding our democracy is now more urgent than ever, and one of the best ways we can do that is by teaching our future generations about the importance of civics skills, engagement, and participation and the value of a democratic process.”