States increasingly prohibit firearms at polling places due to concerns about political violence

In a rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa, a gun rights advocate proudly displays an “I Voted” sticker on his holster. This image highlights the intersection between national voting rights and gun violence prevention advocates. Over the past few years, there has been a growing concern over increased threats during elections. Matt Rourke, a photographer from The Associated Press captured this powerful moment.

In response to heightened risks faced by election workers and the intense political discourse fueled by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, several states are contemplating the prohibition of firearms at polling locations and ballot drop boxes in preparation for the upcoming presidential election in November.

New Mexico recently joined the ranks of 21 other states that have implemented laws restricting the possession of guns in voting areas. These laws typically prohibit individuals from carrying firearms, whether openly or concealed.

In the past two years, nine prohibitions have been implemented by states in an effort to prevent voter intimidation or potential violence at the polls, which were fueled by Trump’s baseless allegations of election rigging. Currently, six states are considering bills that would either prohibit firearms at polling places or extend existing bans to encompass a wider range of locations.

Indiana does not have any specific prohibition regarding the possession of guns at polling locations, although there may be restrictions if the polling location is on school property. However, a recent law has been enacted that makes it a felony to threaten or obstruct election workers or to cause harm to them under certain circumstances.

The New Mexico law, backed solely by Democrats, pertains to areas within 100 feet of polling places and 50 feet of ballot drop boxes. Those who infringe upon this legislation may face a petty misdemeanor charge, potentially leading to a six-month jail sentence.

According to Democratic state Rep. Reena Szczepanski, one of the sponsors of the bill, our country is experiencing a growing polarization in its climate. She emphasizes the importance of taking steps to reduce this polarization and ensure the safe exercise of our fundamental democratic right – voting.

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According to Stateline, the inspiration behind introducing the legislation came from concerned Santa Fe poll workers who faced harassment from individuals openly carrying firearms during the 2020 presidential election.

The bill made an exception for individuals who possess concealed carry permits and members of law enforcement. However, all Republicans in the New Mexico legislature opposed the measure, expressing concerns that gun owners may inadvertently commit a crime by bringing their firearm to the polling place.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Republican House Minority Floor Leader Ryan Lane expressed his perplexity at the prioritization of certain issues over the prevalent real crime problems in the state. He stated, “We have a lot of real crime problems in this state. It’s puzzling to me why we’re making this a priority.”

In recent years, there has been growing concern among national voting rights and gun violence prevention advocates regarding the escalating risks surrounding elections. They have been highlighting a surge in disinformation, relaxed gun regulations, a significant rise in firearm purchases, and instances of vigilantism at polling sites and ballot counting centers.

According to national surveys, a significant number of election officials have abandoned their positions due to the alarming threats they have encountered. Meanwhile, those who continue to serve are increasingly worried about their personal safety.

According to Robyn Sanders, a Democracy Program counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights group at the New York University School of Law, the combination of heightened tensions surrounding the upcoming election and the aggressive rhetoric from Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, creates a “storm” situation. Sanders argues that this makes it crucial for states to pass laws prohibiting guns at polling places.

According to Sanders, the emergence of the election denial movement, along with disinformation and false narratives about the integrity of our elections, has placed our democracy under unprecedented pressure. In a September report co-authored by Sanders, the Brennan Center and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence explored ways to safeguard elections from the threats posed by gun violence.

She added that the presence of guns in these places poses a risk of violence.

Increased threat environment

In recent years, threats have escalated from simple voicemails, emails, and social media posts. We have witnessed armed vigilantes harassing voters at ballot drop boxes and even gathering outside vote tabulation centers. Shockingly, there have been reports of individuals firing shots at local election officials. These alarming incidents highlight the concerning reality of the current political climate.

Several states have passed laws in recent years to criminalize threats against election officials. However, there are some states that are looking to go even further by implementing gun restrictions.

This year, several Democratic lawmakers in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia have introduced legislation to prohibit the presence of firearms in or around polling places and other election-related areas. However, these bills are currently under review in committee.

In recent years, there have been instances of political violence in several states. For example, in Pennsylvania, a man attempted to enter a Harrisburg polling place in November while armed with a firearm. He engaged in threatening behavior by confronting voters and pointing an unloaded gun at an unoccupied police cruiser.

A bill to prohibit the presence of firearms at polling places in Virginia has successfully passed the state legislature, with a party-line vote in favor. However, the Republican Governor, Glenn Youngkin, has yet to take action on this legislation. Despite a request for additional information, his press office has not provided a response.

Two bills supported by Democrats in Michigan aim to prohibit the possession of most firearms at or within 100 feet of polling places, as well as ballot drop boxes and clerks’ offices during the 40 days leading up to an election. These bills have been approved by the state Senate and are currently awaiting votes in the House.

According to GOP state Sen. Jim Runestad, these bills may grab attention in headlines, but they lack substance. He expressed this sentiment in a statement on the Senate Republicans’ website.

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Referring to gun owners, he highlighted the fact that the numerous drop boxes scattered throughout larger communities, such as in the city of Detroit, make it extremely challenging to avoid them.

In 2020, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson made an attempt to prohibit the possession of firearms within a 100-foot radius of polling places, clerks’ offices, and absentee ballot counting centers. However, her efforts were thwarted by Michigan courts, who ruled that she lacked the necessary authority to enforce such a ban.

During the 2020 presidential election, election officials in Michigan, like many other states, encountered a wave of violent threats. Recently, a man pleaded guilty to federal charges for issuing threats against the former Rochester Hills Clerk, Tina Barton. He expressed that she deserved a “throat to the knife.”

A recent poll conducted by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism revealed that a significant majority of voters, regardless of political affiliation, support the prohibition of firearms at polling places. The survey, which involved over 1,000 adults, found that approximately 80% of Democrats and more than half of Republicans and independents agreed that guns should be banned from polling locations. In total, 63% of the respondents expressed their support for this measure.

However, this bipartisan backing has not resulted in the same level of support in state legislatures.

Where are the bans?

In recent years, there has been a push to ban firearms at polling places, primarily led by Democratic-controlled states. However, it is worth noting that only a few Republican lawmakers have joined forces with Democrats to pass such bills in certain states.

In 2022, four states took action to implement firearm restrictions at polling places. Colorado, New Jersey, New York, and Washington state all enacted measures to enhance security and ensure the safety of voters. The following year, California, Delaware, Hawaii, and Maryland followed suit, adding their names to the growing list of states addressing this important issue.

Last year, Nevada’s legislature, which is predominantly Democratic, passed a ban on similar grounds. However, the ban was vetoed by Republican Governor Joe Lombardo, who argued that it would have encroached upon the constitutional rights of the residents of Nevada.

Gun rights groups and activists are currently challenging Maryland’s ban, asserting that such bans violate Second Amendment protections and are ultimately ineffective.

According to Andi Turner, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, the law in question is “a solution looking for a problem.” Turner argues that there is no evidence of people threatening or shooting election workers at polling places, so there is no need for such a law.

In the 2020 presidential election, the states that previously had bans on firearms in polling places now have legislatures controlled by Republicans. These states include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas.

Georgia implemented its ban on firearms at polling places in 1870. The state Supreme Court further emphasized the impropriety and potential harm associated with having firearms at polling places in 1874. They stated that such an action is not only improper but also goes against the principles of propriety and usefulness. The court also questioned whether the framers of the constitution intended to grant constitutional protection for such an act.

According to Jessie Ojeda, the guns and democracy attorney fellow at the Giffords Law Center and co-author of the joint Brennan and Giffords report, it is recommended that more Republican-led states should implement firearm prohibitions at polling places.

Gun safety advocates like Ojeda view these laws as an opportunity, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision that expanded the scope of protected firearm access. Although the court invalidated New York’s law that banned firearms in public, it did acknowledge the possibility of restrictions in “sensitive places,” with polling locations being specifically mentioned.

“We must take action before 2024,” emphasized Ojeda. “There is an increasing number of instances where firearms are not being used to harm people, but rather to intimidate and discourage voters and election officials from carrying out their duties.”

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The fear of political violence has led to an increasing number of states implementing bans on firearms at polling places. This precautionary measure aims to ensure the safety and security of voters and election officials. By prohibiting the presence of firearms, states hope to prevent any potential acts of intimidation or violence during the electoral process. Such measures reflect the importance of maintaining a peaceful and democratic environment for individuals to exercise their right to vote without fear or coercion.

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