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Opinion: To keep Election Day safe, leave your guns at home

Danielle Lang and Matthew Quallen

As we head into Election Day, voting in Michigan is well underway. And voting in Michigan has never been easier. As of 2018, everyone is eligible to vote by mail and new voters can register through Election Day thanks to same-day voter registration.

According to a recent study by VICE, Michigan is the only state in the nation to substantially increase the number of polling locations in 2020 while most states have slashed polling locations. And despite recent attention to a court battle over guns at polling locations, Michigan voters should rest assured that voting is not only easy: It is safe. Indeed, like every election cycle, election officials are hard at work at ensuring a peaceful and secure voting experience for Michigan residents — as the law guarantees.

Guns are effectively banned at many of Michigan’s polling places, the authors write.

The current dispute in Michigan courts relates to an October 16 directive from Michigan’s Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, prohibiting the open carry of firearms at all polling places and ballot counting locations. Within days, a variety of Michigan gun rights groups filed suit in state court, seeking to stop the directive. On Thursday, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued an order rejecting Benson’s directive. The Michigan Attorney General has already appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

But regardless of where the judicial ping-pong over Benson’s order ends, it is possible it will be illegal to carry firearms at most Michigan polling places on Election Day and other protections against voter intimidation will remain in place.

Even before Benson issued the October 16 directive, Michigan law banned concealed carry of firearms — including by those with Concealed Pistol Licensees (CPLs) — on school grounds, at places of worship, at daycares, at casinos, at banks, at hospitals and even at taverns. And Michigan law prohibits open or concealed carry by those without a CPL at all of those locations. Although state law does not prohibit open carry by CPL holders at these sites, individual cities, schools, and houses of worship can and do ban or restrict firearms even further. Firearms are banned outright at schools in Ann Arbor. And in Detroit, it is illegal to publicly brandish a firearm.

These background laws — which have not been blocked by any court and are not at issue in the unfolding litigation — mean that guns are effectively banned at many of Michigan’s polling places.

For example, in Ann Arbor’s first electoral ward, voters from ten of its twelve precincts will cast their ballots at schools where firearms are absolutely prohibited. In Grand Rapids’ first ward, voters in twelve of twenty-four precincts vote at schools. Among voters in the remaining twelve precincts, those in nine have houses of worship as their designated polling places. At these twenty-one locations, state law bans concealed carry by all. And each school and church may also ban open carry outright.

Similar patterns hold throughout the state. The great majority of Detroit’s polling locations are churches and schools. Many of these schools and churches have policies banning any firearms whatsoever, policies upheld by Michigan’s Supreme Court in 2018.

Even at the few Michigan polling places that lack gun restrictions, Michigan residents who bring weapons to the polls still risk running afoul of the law. Both federal and Michigan law make it a crime to intimidate voters — in each case a felony punishable by years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. And Michigan officials, including the state’s attorney general, have vowed to vigorously enforce these laws.

The upshot of these laws is that most polling places ban concealed carry entirely and ban open carry for those without a license. But even those with a license cannot open carry with the intent to intimidate. And moreover, many localities and specific polling places outright ban open carry for all citizens.

Michigan courts may ultimately uphold Secretary Benson’s directive banning firearms at the polls. (And, to be clear, they should: Secretary Benson’s blanket rule provides voters with peace of mind and added protection with little to no burden on gun owners.) But for most Michigan residents, whatever the courts decide, the result will be the same.

The law already prohibits doing anything that would intimidate fellow voters, including when that involves wielding a gun. And the law makes carrying most weapons illegal at the types of locations that usually serve as polling places.

For the millions of Michigan voters who will peacefully cast their ballots for either party on or before Tuesday, the law’s message is simple: When you go to the polls, you are more likely to encounter smiling election workers and fellow engaged citizens than a gun.

But to those who would consider bringing a weapon to the polls this Tuesday, the law’s message is equally clear: Leave it at home.

Danielle Lang is co-director of the voting rights program at Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., a national organization seeking to advance democracy through law. Matthew Quallen is a law student with the Yale Rule of Law Clinic.