LANSING — 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.
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 to the polls and "watch very carefully," raising concerns about possible voter intimidation.
Wexford County Clerk Alaina Nyman said Friday the issue of open carry at the polls was one of concern for several Wexford election workers during recent training. While Nyman said she doesn't believe it will be an issue in our region, she understands where Benson is coming from with this decision.
"Polls are meant to be a neutral zone, where no one should feel intimidated or uncomfortable," Nyman said. "This is just an added step of providing peace of mind to voters and election workers."
Missaukee County Clerk Jessica Nielsen said she questions the authority of this direction from Benson, however, it has never been an issue in Missaukee County in the past. For that reason, Nielsen said she didn't anticipate it would be for this election either.
Likewise, Joey Roberts, who is both the mayor of McBain and the president of Michigan Open Carry, questioned the secretary of state's authority to issue the rule.
"I think that she does not have a constitutional or statutory ability to ban open carry in polling locations," Roberts said. "And I think it puts local officials in a bad position of trying to enforce something like this, and opening themselves up to legal problems."
But the state will likely get sued first.
"I'm guessing that the secretary of state is going to be sued before the elections," Roberts said. "But how quickly the courts will move is another question. We're only 19 days out."
Roberts said Michigan Open Carry is researching the matter.
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.
"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 guidance said. "Absent clear standards, there is potential for confusion and uneven application of legal requirements for Michigan's 1,600 election officials, 30,000 election inspectors, 8 million registered voters, and thousands of challengers and poll watchers on Election Day."
State law enforcement, including Col. Joe Gasper of the Michigan State Police, supports Benson, according to a media release.
"Michigan voters have the right to vote in person on Election Day free from threat and intimidation," Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in the release. "An armed presence at the polls is inconsistent with our notion of a free democracy."
"I think it's a huge stretch, to say that me going into a poll to vote is voter intimidation," Roberts said. "I don't think we've had problems in the past ... being able to vote while armed has gone on for a while in Michigan."
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.