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Packing at the polls: Firearms are fine most places, adding another safety worry

By Sara Swann, The Fulcrum on

Published in News & Features

Voter safety is a top concern for people running elections this year, of course. But that's not only because of the coronavirus. More than any year in memory, there is real worry about the threat of armed conflict at the polls.

There have been no weaponized clashes at drop boxes or early voting centers, so far. But with less than a week to go, social media is filled with hateful or at least threatening talk from partisan stalwarts promising they'll be packing on Election Day.

State and local rules vary widely about the presence of firearms inside polling places and in the hands of people electioneering outside. But in general the policies in most places are either permissive or silent — creating yet another concern for those worried about swelling coronavirus cases, legal disputes about absentee ballots and all the different ways the central act of American democracy could get sullied as never before.

The topic of guns at the polls got a little notice four years ago but faded when Donald Trump's upset election went off without armed incident. But concerns about voter intimidation have returned with a fervor in recent weeks, in the wake of increased activity and heated rhetoric from vigilante groups on both the extreme right and the hard left.

President Donald Trump turned up the volume at the first debate, when he told his supporters "to go into the polls and watch very carefully." But most partisans must stay outside voting locations — 100 feet or farther away from the door in all but 10 states — if they want to heckle or shout encouragement to people on their way in.

Their electioneering can become a federal crime, and a crime in many states, if it's viewed as interfering with the right to vote, however, and plenty of courts have found brandishing a weapon in a threatening way to be a form of voter intimidation.

 

State and county election officials have been consulting with state attorneys general and law enforcement officials to decide what counts as voter intimidation and what powers officials will have to stop it Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, only a handful of certified partisan poll watchers are generally allowed at each precinct polling place. And the president's campaign is training 50,000 of these people under the label "Trump's Army" — insisting the title should not be read as militaristic, because the poll watchers will be armed only with cellphones to summon attorneys if they spot something possibly fraudulent or otherwise untoward.

Just six states (plus the District of Columbia) explicitly prohibit guns of all kinds inside voting locations, and four of them are presidential battlegrounds: Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas, along with solid blue California and pure red Louisiana. Four more states, all solidly in Trump's camp, have polling place exceptions to their usual concealed carry permissions: Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina.

In those 10 states, and 31 others, gun owners are prohibited from taking their weapons on school campuses, which are probably a plurality of the nation's 94,000 or so polling places. Many other states and cities have rules against carrying pistols and rifles into government buildings such as the libraries, fire stations and city halls that are also popular voting locations.

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