Michigan to ban open carry of guns at polls, Jocelyn Benson says

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DETROIT – People will not be allowed to openly carry firearms near polling places, clerks offices or locations where absentee ballots are counted, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Friday.  

Benson included the decision in guidance sent to Michigan clerks as elections officials prepare for any voter intimidation efforts on Election Day, Nov. 3. 

“Fair, free and secure elections are the foundation of our democracy,” Benson said in a news release.

“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.”

The directive states that no one may openly carry a firearm within 100 feet of a polling place, clerk's office or absentee ballot counting board. It requires clerks to post signage noting the rule, and to contact law enforcement if there are any violations. 

Additional guidance from the state to law enforcement on possible safety and security issues on Election Day is expected soon. 

There are thousands of polling places around the state, many located at schools, churches or similar venues. Although President Donald Trump has bashed mail-in voting and encouraged supporters to vote in person on Election Day, he has also called for an "army" of supporters to monitor voting at the polls. 

This has prompted concerns there may be an increase in voter intimidation, especially in a state like Michigan that was decided by only 10,704 votes in 2016. 

State Rep. Beau LaFave, an outspoken Republican from Iron Mountain, blasted the decision.

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“It doesn’t surprise me one bit that the secretary of state is playing these cheap political games. The idea that she must prevent people from exercising their Second Amendment rights for our elections to be safe and secure is absolutely false. Secretary Benson is fearmongering to suppress voters, and it’s appalling," LaFave said. 

LaFave said that “while some polling locations like churches and schools are already ‘pistol-free’ zones under state statute, with limited exceptions, any unilateral action by the executive branch, secretary of state or attorney general banning firearms in other polling places is unlawful, unenforceable and a violation of citizens’ voting rights and their right to self-defense.

"No voter should be forced to choose between these fundamental principles. There’s no way her ban passes constitutional muster. I have no doubt a lawsuit will be forthcoming," LaFave said. 

The guidance to clerks did not cite any specific portion of Michigan law or any state rule that gives the secretary of state the authority to ban the open carry of firearms.

No similar guidance was issued for the Aug. 4 primary in Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did consider mandating people wear masks if they voted in person for that election, but ultimately decided against such an order for fear of possibly disenfranchising voters. 

A spokeswoman for Benson directed questions to the Office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. Later, she cited federal law that makes it a crime to intimidate voters, but did not say how that correlated to the secretary's authority to ban open carry on Election Day. 

A spokesman for Nessel also could not point to a specific law that gives Benson the authority to ban voters from openly carrying a firearm as prescribed in the law. 

"Our office has researched the issue and we’re confident in the advice provided to the secretary," spokesman Ryan Jarvi said. 

In the news release from Benson, Nessel said she fully supports Benson's directive. 

"Michigan voters have the right to vote in person on Election Day free from threat and intimidation. An armed presence at the polls is inconsistent with our notion of a free democracy," Nessel said.

"I stand with the secretary in her commitment to ensure that every eligible voter who wants to vote in person can do so safely and without fear or intimidation.”

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also said it supports Benson's decision. 

"The Supreme Court has long recognized that polling places should be an ‘island of calm,’ free from distraction and interference," Michigan Executive Director Dave Noble said in a news release.

"Therefore, just as people are not allowed to carry signs or pass out political literature within 100 feet of polling places, people should not be allowed to openly carry guns."

The general election is Nov. 3, but Michigan voters may request and cast an absentee ballot now. 

Follow Dave Boucher on Twitter: @Dave_Boucher1.

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