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Guns-at-polls case headed to Michigan Supreme Court

polling place sign
Tony Brown
Michigan Radio

The Michigan Supreme Court is the next stop in a legal fight over whether guns can be openly carried at polling places on Election Day. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel say guns can be intimidating – especially in a contentious election. But gun rights advocates say the state can’t step on a right that’s guaranteed under state law.

Michigan is an “open-carry” state, which means most people can carry a gun in open view without a license. There are exceptions – schools and churches, for example, can forbid them. Those often serve as polling places.

Benson says she can ban openly carried firearms at all polling places because it’s about guaranteeing everyone the right to vote without fear of coercion or intimidation.

“The polling place is a sanctuary for democracy,” she said, “and we and I as the chief election officer and we with law enforcement have every responsibility with law enforcement to ensure the calmness and the sanctity of that precinct, of that polling place is protected and that voters fundamental right to vote is unfettered.”

But gun rights advocates say Benson is going too far – that she can’t use a generalized concern about a possible threat to stop residents from exercising a right.

“While Miss Benson may have some personal misgivings about firearms, super-imposing those misgivings onto every person with a firearm and claiming that that person is inherently engaging in voter intimidation is, it’s asinine,” said Tom Lambert, with the group Michigan Open Carry.

On Tuesday, a Michigan Court of Claims judge agreed, and the state Court of Appeals just backed up that decision on Thursday. Both decisions say if Benson wanted to ban open carry, she should have gone through the state’s formal rule-making process, instead or wanting until Election Day is around the corner.

Benson says she would have acted sooner if she had been aware of growing threats at the polls.

The organization Militia Watch identifies Michigan – along with Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon – as states with a higher high risk of armed militias attempting interference with elections.

Wendy Williams is training to be a poll worker in Flint.

“The unexpected always happens on Election Day and I’m sure this is the case for this election more than any other than we’ve had,” she said.

Williams said she’d like to know what the rules will be, how they’ll be enforced, and what will be expected of people whose jobs are typically limited to duties such as checking voter IDs, not enforcing firearms bans.

“It’s concerning, of course, but I kind of consider it an act of patriotism to safeguard the polls, to be there, to try and make sure that this goes through in a fair way for everyone no matter their affiliation.”

Attorney General Nessel said the case is a on fast track specifically to get those questions settled.

“We will have this resolved by November 3 and we will make it clear exactly what the rules are and are not prior to the people going into the polls on that particular day,” she said.

Nessel also said there already laws against brandishing weapons and voter intimidation, even if they’re not proactive.

“And I feel confident saying this: Irrespective of how the case out, we will have law enforcement in every jurisdiction of the state that is there to ensure the safety of all voters.

The nation is watching what happens in Michigan.

14 states and the District of Columbia filed a brief with the Court of Appeals supporting the position that bringing guns into polling places is intimidating and should not be allowed. That brief can be entered with the Supreme Court as the case proceeds.

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Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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