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Election safety bills set for a Tuesday hearing

Katie Raymond

Legislation meant to keep Michigan polling places and election workers safe is set to receive a hearing this week.

The four-bill package would ban guns from coming within 100 feet of polling places, ballot drop boxes, and absentee ballot counting areas. The ban would not apply to law enforcement or those who live nearby a polling place keeping a firearm in their own home.

It would also make threatening an election official a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

State Representative Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing) chairs the House Elections Committee. She said the legislation would help local clerks and poll workers do their jobs.

“I believe that voting is at the core of our democracy and that everyone should feel safe voting, and I’m hoping that this bill package can advance that objective,” Tsernoglou said.

The legislation is in part a response to rising reports of threatening and harassing behavior against election officials and workers during recent election cycles.

But some lawmakers have shared doubts about the bills, saying it’s already illegal to threaten someone and that many polling places are already gun free zones.

Representative Ann Bollin (R-Brighton Twp) previously chaired the elections committee. She sees the legislation as a solution in search of a problem.

“We have existing laws about harassment and intimidation of people, alright? There is a reporting mechanism. Election officials are not in a different class. They’re human beings. Just, nobody deserves to be harassed,” Bollin said.

She added Michigan law also already details who is allowed to carry guns and where.

Michigan’s Secretary of State had previously asked lawmakers for more specific legislation to deal with poll workers and polling places specifically.

Department of State spokesperson Jake Rollow argued current penalties are too lenient. He said clerks are still concerned about potentially armed threats.

“Throughout the years, we have heard lots of clerks ask for this specific piece of legislation. They want something very clear in the law that prevents anyone from showing up with a firearm at their polling place or at their clerk’s office,” Rollow said.

Still, Bollin, who is a former clerk herself, said conversations she’s been having have centered around election funding, as opposed to polling place security. Funding could become an especially pressing issue with clerks needing to implement changes passed last year with Proposal 2. The ballot measure requires early voting access and expands absentee voting opportunities.

“I think we need to properly fund our elections. I think we need to make sure that they continue to be administered at the local level and we need to listen to the voices of the local clerks … not necessarily the associations but boots on the ground,” Bollin said.

Rollow estimated local jurisdictions spend an average of around $20,000 per precinct on elections each cycle. He said the Department of State hopes to secure more stable and consistent funding from the Legislature as well.