Guns in polling places make a mockery of the American ideal of free and open elections

Armed intimidation is voter suppression.

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A group tied to the Boogaloo Bois holds a rally as they carry firearms at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on Oct. 17.

A group tied to the Boogaloo Bois holds a rally as they carry firearms at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on Oct. 17.

Jeff Kowalski/AFP/Getty file

As Election Day approaches, it is dismaying to hear people demand that they be allowed to show up at polling places with guns or as aggressive “poll watchers.”

Voter intimidation — even the suggestion of intimidation — is not who we are.

Can we, as a nation, agree at least on that?

As long ago as 1776, the state of Delaware’s constitution said, “To prevent any violence or force being used at . . . elections, no person shall come armed to any of them.”

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The sad fact is that Americans are more likely to bring guns to public gatherings these days, slinging rifles over Hawaiian shirts and military camo. A recent nationwide report documented 190 incidents in which guns were carried at protests this year through mid-August. And now, election authorities worry guns and intimidating “poll watchers” will show up at polling places on Election Day.

The signs are disturbing:

  • President Donald Trump has publicly called for a nationwide army of 50,000 “volunteers” to monitor voting and ballot-counting. Coming from the guy who advised the fascist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” that sounds to us like an invitation to intimidate.
  • In Michigan, where 13 people stand accused of plotting to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and heavily armed protesters showed up at the state capitol in a show of intimidation, gun groups are suing to be allowed to carry guns openly into polling places. For what?
  • In New Hampshire, the attorney general has announced that no one can prevent people from bringing guns to the polls, even those situated in schools.
  • A recent report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and MilitiaWatch listed Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Oregon as having the highest risk of elections-related militia activity. “Militia groups and other armed non-state actors pose a serious threat to the safety and security of American voters,” the report said.
  • Reporters tracking social media say numerous posts include announcements from individuals saying they will bring guns to the polls.

“People are a little bit worried,” a national voting expert told us. “Polling places are semi-sacred spaces. It is highly likely guns would have a subjective sense of intimidation, and because of that the likelihood that people would change their behavior increases.”

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As the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says, “Armed intimidation at the polls is voter suppression, plain and simple.”

Not everyone gets it. In Nevada, state Attorney General Aaron Ford said, “The mere presence of a firearm at a public polling location, in and of itself, won’t rise to that level [of intimidation].”

Is he kidding? Guns, quite easily, can have that effect. Ask any older African American from the Deep South who in the 1950s had to walk a gauntlet of armed white men to exercise his right to even register to vote.

More than half of voters nationwide are expected to cast their ballots before Nov. 3. But winning elections is all about margins. You don’t have to scare everyone, just enough.

Voting should be a moment of civic pride. It should be a coming together as Americans, even as we may disagree. Guns in polling places make a mockery of that ideal.

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