Political News

States grapple with open-carry gun laws and the polls

Posted October 9, 2020 5:11 p.m. EDT

— Michigan's attorney general is preparing to release new guidance as soon as next week to law enforcement officials across the state about people bringing guns to the polls on Election Day, as election officials across the country wrestle with how to address heightened tensions and threats of violence over the election.

The pressure to ensure a safe election in Michigan was ratcheted up even higher Thursday after more than a dozen people were charged in an alleged domestic terrorism plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.

"If you plan to vote in the state of Michigan, and I will say this for states all across the country where attorney generals are very engaged, we will ensure that it is safe and secure and that you can vote without threat and that is more important to us right now than virtually anything," state Attorney General Dana Nessel said Friday on CNN's "New Day."

Nessel said earlier this week that she was developing guidance to send to all law enforcement officials in the state regarding what is considered voter suppression and what is allowed under Michigan's open-carry gun laws. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was unclear on whether her office would allow individuals to bring guns to the polls when asked at the opening of a satellite voting location in Detroit on Monday but said voter intimidation would not be tolerated.

"If a line is crossed and if anyone becomes disruptive or in other ways tries to intimidate citizens from casting their vote that myself, the attorney general and local law enforcement across the state will be prepared to step in and protect the voters," Benson told reporters. "I would be very concerned about that if anyone does that, and we're going to be looking at what the law does and does not allow."

Election officials in several states are considering the implications of voters displaying guns at polling places and the potential to intimidate other voters or to suppress the vote. Officials' fears of conflicts and even violence on Election Day have been heightened following President Donald Trump's call for his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully" at last month's debate, as well as White nationalist groups cheering Trump's comment at the debate for the far-right group the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by."

In many states where open carry laws don't restrict guns at the polls, the location of polling places such as schools or churches may have their own limitations on voters bringing their guns with them to vote. But officials say there are concerns about people displaying guns to intimidate voters outside of polling places as well. Most voting sites have boundaries in place to prevent campaigning or loitering too close to the location. During primaries earlier this year, however, long lines due to Covid-19 slowed down voting and created more distance between those in line -- which meant voters were waiting beyond the distance where rules applied to prevent people from doing things at polling places like campaigning or, in some states, carrying a gun.

Laws about guns and polling places vary state by state. In 11 states, including Arizona and Florida, as well the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, there is a specific ban on firearms and other weapons in polling places, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But many battleground states do not have the same restrictions. A recent study by Guns Down America and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, two gun-control advocacy groups, found that multiple battleground states have the ability under their state constitutions to prohibit firearms at polling places but have not done so, though in some cases local governments could also step in.

Concerns about violence on Election Day may be highest in states with open-carry gun laws where guns aren't restricted at polling places.

"Though neither Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, or Wisconsin, have state laws that explicitly ban firearms at polling places, they all have either the necessary elements in place or the potential to do so," the report says. "States like North Carolina and Virginia have broad exemptions to their firearm preemption statutes, empowering local governments to prohibit the presence of firearms in polling places if they choose to do so."

Election officials around the country are working with the FBI and local law enforcement for a series of exercises to prepare for potentially chaotic scenarios around Election Day. Those scenarios include everything from an election website crashing to missing or delayed ballots to threats of harm and violence.

"Our preparations for 2020 take into account the current climate of the country and the FBI has a responsibility to plan for a host of potential scenarios," an FBI spokesperson told CNN. "The FBI works closely with our partners to identify and stop any potential threats to public safety. We gather and analyze intelligence to determine whether individuals might be motivated to take violent action for any reason."

This past spring in Michigan, heavily armed demonstrators gathered multiple times at the state Capitol in Lansing in protest of the governor's coronavirus stay-at-home order. One man at the demonstration was seen on video carrying what appeared to be an American flag with a naked doll with long black hair hanging from a pole with a noose around its neck. In August, several fights broke out in Kalamazoo when a far-right extremist organization clashed with counterprotesters at a rally.

The incidents underscored Michigan's gun laws, which critics deemed too relaxed. Currently there is no state law in Michigan that specifically prohibits the presence of firearms at polling places.

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown told CNN that threats of violent voter intimidation "are just rumors." But she said the county is preparing.

"We are with our county homeland security team as well as with our county sheriff, and other law enforcement agencies, if there are any issues," Brown said.

"We've always had poll watchers. And we know that they're probably going to be on steroids for this election. But Detroiters are not easily intimidated," said Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey.

We Make Michigan, a coalition of six grassroots organizations, launched a pledge earlier this week calling on Michiganders to use their power to protect democracy and take care of their neighbors.

"Detroit is often a hub for voter suppression tactics in order to suppress Black voters," the executive director of We the People Michigan, Art Reyes, told CNN.

Can I take my guns to the polls?

An election official in Raleigh, North Carolina, told CNN that dozens of voters were calling and asking about safety at the polls. Civil rights groups have held conversations on how to ensure peaceful voting, and the NAACP expanded poll-worker recruitment in a new program called "Protect Our People at the Polls," preparing thousands of volunteers, many in battleground states, to deal with potential voter intimidation.

"We're going to see a different type of intimidation that we haven't seen before," Dominik Whitehead, the NAACP national civic engagement director, told CNN, citing the President's debate rhetoric. "We're making sure that we're protecting our community but also ensuring that folks have an opportunity to vote in peace."

In Pennsylvania, voting rights advocates have sounded alarms about the state's guns laws that allow residents to carry and openly display firearms, expressing concern the law could be used to intimidate voters.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office doesn't plan on giving guidance to law enforcement officials about gun laws and voter intimidation but is instead planning on reaching out directly to the voters, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. While the attorney general's office routinely puts out a similar guide, there is more urgency to reach voters given the rhetoric around this election.

One of the sections in the document, which the source described to CNN, is expected to focus in part on gun laws in the state and answer the question: Can I take my gun to the polls?

In Pennsylvania, voters will be able to take their guns to the polls as long as they lawfully own them, unless the polling place is a school or courthouse or another place where state law prohibits firearms. According to the source, the guide will stress that it is illegal to aggressively display a firearm in a way that intimidates voters.

The source said there will also be details regarding what is and isn't allowed for poll watching, how it works and what the requirements are, as well as what voters should do if they feel intimidated, reiterating the information about firearms and noting that voter intimidation is illegal.

But in Philadelphia, the city district attorney's office is going a step farther with its efforts to combat voter intimidation, including making assistant district attorneys and district attorney detectives available while the satellite election offices are open, in case of intimidation, and creating a hotline for voters to report such issues.

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