There is an unmistakable effort underway to intimidate voters — specifically Democratic voters — when they go to the polls. The president himself has repeatedly threatened to send law enforcement to voting locations to hunt for supposed voter fraud, while more organic efforts include bullhorns, honking cars with Trump flags, and shouting confrontations directed at people lined up at early polling stations in blue or purple areas.
Bringing and displaying weapons at voting sites is one facet of potential intimidation that’s emerged in the weeks leading up to Election Day. There is an organized push from right-wing groups to show up at the polls with guns: a development election officials fear will create an unsafe environment for other voters to cast their ballots. In one swing state, an effort to limit the presence of guns at polling locations was met with a court fight and a standoff between the state’s election officials and some members of law enforcement.
Each state has specific laws around whether guns are permitted at voting locations — but only about a dozen states explicitly ban open and/or concealed carry of firearms at the polls. The legality of bringing a gun to vote can hinge on a technicality, like whether the polling place is a church, school or government building.
But the legal wrangling over who is allowed to arm themselves at which polling locations obscures a more straightforward point: voter intimidation is a federal crime everywhere in the U.S., and many voters would feel intimidated by visibly armed people at their polling places.
“Showing up with a gun with the intent to show it really violates the norms of our democracy,” Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in an interview.
“There’s a continuum of intimidation,” Horwitz continued, and “a certain segment of the gun-owning population — these really extreme gun rights radicals — think that bringing a gun to all these places is a political statement. And that statement is, ‘I’m better than you. My voice matters more than yours.’”
In recognition of the intimidating impact visible weapons at the polls could have on voters, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced a ban earlier this month on open carry of firearms within 100 feet of polling locations on Nov. 3. As a swing state, even a few people in Michigan spotting guns at their voting center and deciding that casting their ballot isn’t worth the risk could have a significant impact on the election.
Right-wing gun enthusiasts and some law enforcement officials immediately rebelled. A coalition of pro-gun groups in Michigan sued to prevent its enforcement, claiming that the “practical effect” of the policy was to “disenfranchise” voters who support the Second Amendment. Several law enforcement officials said they would not enforce the ban. On Tuesday, a judge struck down the open carry ban, a decision Benson said she will appeal.
Regardless of how the legal battle plays out, the organized backlash against the effort to ban open carry at the polls already has some Michigan voters on edge. On the Facebook pages for two of the pro-gun groups behind the lawsuit, several people indicated plans to bring visible guns with them to vote, in part to spite Benson’s effort. Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan, told Politico that voters have been calling their local election officials and asking, “What do we do if someone shows up carrying an AK-47 into the polls? Who do we call? Some of the local law enforcement have already said they won’t enforce it. What do we do?”
The use of guns as a means of political intimidation isn’t theoretical in Michigan. Earlier this year, a group of heavily armed protesters entered the capitol building to demand an end to the state’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. A group of people opposed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) pandemic precautions are currently recruiting volunteers to show up near the polls on Nov. 3 to collect signatures to recall the governor — who was the recent target of a failed kidnapping plot by militia members.
The risk of voter intimidation is heightened by President Donald Trump’s repeated encouragement that his supporters partake in the effort. Trump has urged his fans to “go into the poll and watch very carefully,” a directive that is likely illegal. Asked to direct white supremacist groups and militias to “stand down” in cities where far-right extremists have confronted anti-racist protesters, Trump instead directed the Proud Boys, a violent neo-fascist street gang, to “stand back and stand by.”
The Trump campaign is aggressively recruiting poll watchers to join the “Army for Trump,” to protect the president from Democrats who are supposedly trying to steal the election. Poll watchers have to be vetted and approved before the election and there are strict limitations on what they can do at the polls. The Trump campaign’s official poll watching materials acknowledge as much — but the rhetoric that is more immediately available to most voters inaccurately implies that any Trump supporter can show up on a whim and take it upon themselves to referee the election.
Last week two armed Trump supporters wearing security guard uniforms showed up near a polling place in Florida, claiming they were hired by the Trump campaign. The campaign denied any connection to the pair and the local sheriff said they hadn’t done anything illegal.
Earlier this month, a private security company called Atlas Aegis tried to recruit former members of the military to guard Minnesota polling places, businesses and residences “from looting and destruction,” a likely reference to people protesting against the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in May. The state’s attorney general Keith Ellison reached a settlement with Atlas Aegis, in which the group agreed not to provide election-related security.
In Iowa, also a swing state, election officials are bracing for gun-related voter intimidation as a result of a new state law prohibiting bans on firearms in city or government buildings unless an armed security guard is present. As a result of the new law, there will be more polling places in the state where it is legal for people to bring their guns to vote.
Not all of the efforts to get guns at the polls are statewide or attracting media attention. In Virginia, a group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League designated Tuesday, Oct. 27, as “gun owners vote early and in person day.”
“Hopefully a lot of other gun owners will be in line with you!” the group wrote on its Facebook page. VCDL, a fringe pro-gun group, is best known for organizing an armed rally in Richmond, Virginia, in January to protest gun control, attended by far-right extremists and neo-Nazis.
Even if most municipalities were to succeed in banning guns from polling sites, the very public fight over lethal weapons where people vote could have a dampening effect on some people’s willingness to show up and cast a ballot.
“The rhetoric around these issues is intentionally voter suppressing — it’s intentionally trying to discourage voters from participating by scaring them away from the polls.” Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections program, said, adding that voters can always flag intimidation concerns with poll workers and call the Election Protection hotline.
“It seems like the backlash to the efforts of voter suppression is voter participation,” she continued, “which is tremendous, and really the best way to demonstrate that we as citizens aren’t going to tolerate efforts to curb or limit our right to vote.