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 and churches do. Those rules vary at the state and local level.
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 thirteen people in a plot to kidnap democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer and start a civil war.
Election officials and civil rights groups in two U.S. states that will play a key role in November’s presidential election gave warnings about the potential for armed civilians at polling places sparking violence or intimidating voters. Michigan’s top election official said state police will enforce a ban on people openly carrying firearms near polling places on Election Day, Nov. 3. In Minnesota, civil rights groups sued to block efforts by a private security company to deploy armed polling monitors, labeling the effort voter intimidation.
November’s election, one of the most bitterly contested in living U.S. history, could set the stage for a clash between the robust American traditions of free speech and gun rights, following a series of incidents at this year’s wave of anti-racism protests. Republican President Donald Trump has cast doubt on the election result, calling it “rigged” and warning supporters to watch for fraud. Nonpartisan election experts have dismissed his claims about voter fraud as far-fetched and denounced calls for illegal voter intimidation. Trump lost Minnesota by fewer than 2 percentage points in 2016 and won Michigan by a fraction of a percentage point.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a directive on Friday banning the open carry of guns within 100 feet of voting centers. Some republicans and local law enforcement representatives have said it may not be enforceable. Others have speculated that an attempt to block people from carrying guns to the polls will spur protests by gun rights activists outside of voting centers, raising the specter of election-related violence. “This is not a ban on firearms. This is an effort to protect our voters from intimidation, threats, and harassment on Election Day itself,” Benson, a democrat, said on a call with journalists, adding she had the authority to do so based on state and federal law making voter intimidation illegal.
In Minnesota, local affiliates of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and League of Women Voters asked courts to halt recruiting by a Tennessee-based private security company that promised $910 a day to former special operations military personnel who head to Minneapolis during and after the election. They called the effort voter intimidation.
The Supreme Court has been very clear when it upheld the laws establishing the no electioneering zones around polling places, that even though there are First Amendment rights, which are important rights, that the state’s compelling interest in preventing voter intimidation allowed for it to take reasonable measures. 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 Attorney General Aaron Ford, a democrat, said on a press call this month.