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Can people carry guns into polling places? You might be surprised

Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., on Thursday.
Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., on Thursday.
(Associated Press)

Growing activity from armed far-right groups and President Trump’s calls for his supporters to watch polling places “very carefully” have raised concerns of possible disruptions or voter intimidation ahead of the Nov. 3 election. States will also have to prepare for the prospect of guns being brought into voting sites — legally.

So can voters bring guns into polling places? In most states, the answer is: It depends.

Only about a dozen states — including California, Arizona, Florida and Georgia — explicitly ban open and/or concealed carry in voting sites.

In much of the country, voters may bring firearms into polling places, as long as the buildings being used for voting don’t generally ban them — as many schools, government buildings and churches do. Those rules vary at the state and local level.

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The laws that govern weapons in polling places have drawn increasing scrutiny lately. Across an increasingly polarized nation, election officials have been consulting with state attorneys general and law enforcement over what counts as voter intimidation and what powers officials have to stop it.

Nowhere is the issue more relevant than in Michigan, where the state’s gun laws and extremist activity came to a head this month when officials charged 13 people in a plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and start a civil war. Some of the suspects took part in anti-lockdown demonstrations at the state capitol in the spring, when heavily armed protesters marched through the building, intimidating some lawmakers.

Protesters with rifles stand outside the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on April 15.
Men with rifles stand outside the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on April 15. They were protesting the governor’s restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
(Associated Press)

Every election season brings rumors that menacing people will show up at the polls, but they rarely amount to anything, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an interview on Thursday. But Benson said she and others believe “this year is different” because the calls to observe people at polling places “have been much more specific and much more targeted than in years past.”

Trump has repeatedly made such calls.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he said at a Sept. 29 debate.

And at a Michigan rally on Saturday, he called the governor a “partisan” and falsely claimed she’s “like a judge of the ballot stuff.”

“So you got to watch it, watch those ballots, watch what’s going on,” he told the crowd, emphasizing their importance.

President Trump’s supporters chant ‘Lock her up!’ about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, just over a week after the FBI said it foiled a plot to kidnap her.

Several elected officials and voter advocates have said the president’s comments increased their concerns of potential disturbances on election day.

“As a result we are preparing accordingly,” Benson said. “But at the same time, my priority’s on making sure that voters know they will be completely safe if they choose to vote in person, because we’ve got protections in place, and that even if they still feel unsafe they have the option to vote early, or vote from home.”

On Friday, Benson announced that voters would not be allowed to open carry weapons in polling places, clerk’s offices or buildings where absentee ballots are counted, or within 100 feet of those locations.

“Prohibiting the open-carry of firearms in areas where citizens cast their ballots is necessary to ensure every voter is protected,” Benson said in a statement. Licensed concealed carry is still allowed in polling places that don’t normally ban guns.

“The secretary has pretty wide discretion when it comes to polling locations,” Atty. Gen. Dana Nessel, whose office worked with Benson on the guidance, said in an interview Monday.

Michigan hasn’t had a history of election day violence, but because of “increased and aggressive rhetoric,” specifically from the president, Nessel said, her office wanted to be more prepared this year.

The office sent out memorandums to all the law enforcement agencies in the state, outlining election laws and things to look out for during voting, and will have a team of lawyers standing by on election day. Nessel’s staff has been in contact with social media companies on their plans to look for and remove any posts urging people to cause disruptions.

Her office is also reaching out to leaders in the state’s largest communities — particularly those with large concentrations of immigrants and people of color — where voter intimidation is more likely to occur, she said.

“We have spent weeks and weeks probably researching every potential scenario, every potential set of circumstances that we can possibly envision,” Nessel said. “I’m sure there may be things that crop up that we haven’t really imagined, but we’ll be prepared for it as much as possible.”

Armed right-wing groups are registering as poll watchers and planning to monitor voting places during the presidential election.

The move to block open carry at Michigan polling places has won the support of voting rights advocates and gun control groups, but drawn criticism from gun rights advocates, who say Benson lacked the authority to act unilaterally.

“She can’t, by fiat, create some would be emergency in her mind and feel that she can regulate guns, or how we carry those guns,” said Rick Ector, a firearms instructor and head of Legally Armed Detroit. “She is completely without basis, it’s unprecedented and she’s acting like a tyrant.”

Ector said open carry also benefits Black gun owners, such as himself, by enabling them to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights and possibly prevent violence. “It allows you to serve as a visual deterrent to anyone who would trample over your rights or threaten your safety,” he said.

Mary McCord, the legal director for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, applauded the move by Benson and pointed to past Supreme Court decisions defending electioneering buffer zones around polling places.

“The Supreme Court’s been very clear when it upheld the laws establishing the no electioneering zones around polling places, that even though there are 1st Amendment rights, which are important rights, that the state’s compelling interest in preventing voter intimidation allowed for it to take reasonable measures,” she said. “So I think, as a matter of the Constitution, courts would look at this similarly.”

Federal law bans voter intimidation, which can include obstructing access to polling places, addressing voters while wearing uniforms or military-style clothing or writing down people’s license plate numbers. Brandishing a weapon in a threatening way would also qualify as voter intimidation.

The challenge for election officials is how to balance the legal right to open carry with heightened safety concerns.

The right to carry firearms and the right to vote without fear of intimidation “are concurrent rights that can operate simultaneously and in fact, do operate simultaneously here in our state,” Nevada Atty. Gen. Aaron Ford, a Democrat, said on a press call this month.

“The line that will be crossed is a line of intimidation. To the extent you violate the law relative to using your firearm to intimidate or coerce, or to unduly influence someone, that’s going to be considered voter intimidation,” Ford said. “The mere presence of a firearm at a public polling location, in and of itself, won’t rise to that level.”

Officials in Wisconsin, another open-carry state, are planning to send guidance to local election officials this week, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The state’s Department of Justice is working with the election commission and law enforcement and taking threats to the election seriously, Wisconsin Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul said Monday in a statement.

“Voter intimidation is illegal,” Kaul said. “If someone breaks the laws that protect against voter intimidation, they should be prepared to spend time behind bars.”

In Minnesota, which also allows open-carry, local election officials are allowed to post a sergeant-at-arms at each polling place to greet voters, ensure they are in the right place and help enforce the 100-foot buffer zone outside the entrance to the polling place, where political activity is banned, said Casey Joe Carl, the top election official for Minneapolis. Carl said his city is deploying the position for the first time since 2016.

For most election officials, preparing for possible disruptions on election day is about emphasizing the tools that are already available. Local officials in Minnesota annually update plans for a range of worst-case election day scenarios, said Ginny Gelms, the election manager for Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located.

“Counties are required to have plans in place to deal with all the hazards that might impact elections, that includes unrest, folks bringing weapons and that kind of thing,” she said. “We’ve been doing that for years and we’ll continue to do that.”

Top election officials in several other states, including ones that aren’t battlegrounds, have been issuing detailed guidance to local offices and members of the public on what’s allowed at polling locations and what steps officials can take if something goes wrong, including asking people to leave and calling law enforcement.

Voter advocacy groups are also bracing for more complex issues this cycle.

Two were dead, and one was injured after shootings amid protests in Kenosha, Wis. Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, was arrested on homicide charges.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said his group is preparing for a range of scenarios that’s broader and potentially more extreme than what it has anticipated in the past. That planning isn’t based on any specific threats, and Ho emphasized that he didn’t want to alarm people or make voters think his group is predicting outbreaks of violence. Instead, the preparation grew from its reading of violent events at protests in Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore., and the rhetoric coming from the White House.

“It just makes us really nervous that this election could see more significant disruptions,” Ho said. “If we have an act of violence, for example, what happens? What happens when the area outside of the polling place, or inside of a polling place, becomes a crime scene? That’s not something that we’ve had to deal with in the past.”

For a scenario like that, Ho’s team is getting up to date on state laws governing whether voters can cast provisional ballots at precincts they’re not assigned to, or if the group would need to ask for that accommodation in court.

“Over the last nine months, things that we thought were the stuff of fiction happened three weeks later,” Ho said, “so we just want to be better prepared.”


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