Here’s how Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is continuing a decades-long fight against armed voter intimidation.
LANSING, Mich.—When you go to vote, there are things you should bring. It’s a good idea, though not required, to bring identification. You could also bring something to keep you occupied in case lines run a bit long. You shouldn’t, however, bring a gun.
That requirement comes from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who issued restrictions on openly carrying firearms at polling places ahead of the 2020 general election Nov. 3.
“The presence of firearms at the polling place, clerk’s office(s), or absent voter counting board may cause disruption, fear, or intimidation for voters, election workers, and others present,” Benson’s directive states. As such, “[t]he open carry of a firearm is prohibited in a polling place, in any hallway used by voters to enter or exit, or within 100 feet of any entrance to a building in which a polling place is located.”
The concern Benson has is the result of escalating tension in Michigan over the course of 2020, fueled by rhetoric casting doubt on the legitimacy of government procedures. Protesting coronavirus protections in April, armed gunmen stormed the Capitol Building and stood as legislators, at least one in a bulletproof vest, enacted the policies the gunmen supported. Recently, attendees of this protest and others were arrested for a plot to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and violently seize control of Michigan’s government outright.
“Fair, free and secure elections are the foundation of our democracy,” Benson said in a statement. “I am committed to ensuring all eligible Michigan citizens can freely exercise their fundamental right to vote without fear of threats, intimidation or harassment … Prohibiting the open-carry of firearms in areas where citizens cast their ballots is necessary to ensure every voter is protected.”
It also is based in similar legal traditions surrounding elections. The 100-foot bubble around polling places where open carry is prohibited matches the same sphere where the ability to campaign for a candidate or cause is banned. Regulations like that appear in most states and have traditionally been supported by the Supreme Court, even under fairly strict enforcement, despite any First Amendment challenges brought against them.
Local law enforcement officials aren’t all embracing the directive, however. Some are outright refusing to enforce the protection against voter intimidation, as sheriffs did with coronavirus protections.
“I’m a law enforcement officer, not a directive enforcement officer,” Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy told WDIV. “If there is intimidation, if there’s shenanigans, and if statutes are being broken, then we will enforce them… But open carry, there’s no statute that prevents somebody from doing that.”
Intimidation of voters is criminal in Michigan, but the exact definition is left open by the law. Benson’s directive defines that intimidation as including openly carrying firearms.
In 1981, the Republican Party sent armed “poll guards” to Black and Latinx neighborhoods to oversee the election as part of an alleged voter intimidation effort. As a result, for 36 years tactics like that were banned nationwide under a legal framework called a consent decree. But in 2018 that decree was allowed to lapse.
From this perspective, Benson’s directive uses the legal arguments behind securing the safety of the election from undue influence to restore protections against guns fueling voter intimidation that have long been in place.
And Attorney General Dana Nessel expects law enforcement to treat it as such.
“Seeing a handful of prosecutors and sheriffs around the state mock [Benson]’s guidance to prohibit open carry at the polls by claiming that guns are not intimidating or threatening to voters is as disconnected from reality as I’ve seen in my time in law enforcement,” Nessel tweeted Wednesday. “Your job is not to protect guns—it’s to protect PEOPLE—often from those with guns. When our citizens feel they must risk their lives in order to cast their ballot, we have truly reached the frontier of a failed democracy.”