Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks in Detroit on Sept. 24, 2020. Credit: Paul Sancya/AP file photo
UPDATE, Oct. 30: This ban was struck down on Oct. 27 by a Michigan Court of Claims judge. The decision was upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals on Oct. 30. State Attorney General Dana Nessel has filed an emergency appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court.
UPDATE, Oct. 22: This story was updated with information about two lawsuits challenging the Secretary of Stateâ€™s ban on open carry at the polls.
LANSING, Mich. (AP/Detour) â€” Michigan will not allow people to openly carry guns at or near polling places on Election Day in an effort to limit voter intimidation, the state’s top election official said Friday, Oct. 16.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sent the guidance to clerks just over a week after members of two anti-government paramilitary groups were charged with taking part in plotting the kidnapping of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Some of the men were charged under federal law and others under state law.
Benson’s announcement also comes as some elections officials and voter rights experts nationwide are concerned about violence at the polls as a divided electorate votes in one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history. Also, President Donald Trump has been urging his supporters to go the polls and â€œwatch very carefully,â€ raising concerns about possible voter intimidation.
Benson said people would not be allowed to openly carry firearms within 100 feet of polling places on Nov. 3. That rule does not apply to in-person early voting, which is already underway, and concealed guns will still be allowed, except if the polling place is at a church or school, where firearms are banned.
â€œThe presence of firearms at the polling place, clerkâ€™s office(s), or absent voter counting board may cause disruption, fear, or intimidation for voters, election workers, and others present,â€ Benson’s guidance said. â€œAbsent clear standards, there is potential for confusion and uneven application of legal requirements for Michiganâ€™s 1,600 election officials, 30,000 election inspectors, 8 million registered voters, and thousands of challengers and poll watchers on Election Day.â€
State law enforcement, including Col. Joe Gasper of the Michigan State Police, supports Benson, according to a media release.
â€œMichigan voters have the right to vote in person on Election Day free from threat and intimidation,â€ Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in the release. â€œAn armed presence at the polls is inconsistent with our notion of a free democracy.â€
On Monday, Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said the guidance has no basis in law to allow police to enforce that rule and that he hoped for more clarity before Nov. 3. A spokesperson for Benson said the guidance was issued with Nesselâ€™s support and â€œis indeed based in law.”
On Thursday, two lawsuits seeking to nullify the ban were filed by activists.
Election inspectors must post signs alerting voters of the prohibition, according to the guidance. Firearms can be left in vehicles parked within 100 feet of buildings.
Republican Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey expressed frustration with Benson’s actions.
â€œThe Majority Leader wishes the Secretary would put effort into reducing wait times for people trying to renew their driver’s licenses, but we recognize her actual job is not as attention-grabbing as making up firearm policies less than 20 days before an election,” spokesperson Amber McCann said in a written statement.
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.