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Guns-at-polls case headed to MI Supreme Court

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"Open Carry" by formatted_dad is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
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The Michigan Supreme Court is the next stop in a legal fight over whether guns can be openly carried at polling places on Election Day. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel say guns can be intimidating – especially in a contentious election. But gun rights advocates say the state can’t step on a right that’s guaranteed under state law.

Michigan is an “open-carry” state, which means most people can carry a gun in open view without a license. There are exceptions – schools and churches, for example, can forbid them. Those often serve as polling places.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says she can ban openly carried firearms at all polling places.        

“The polling place is a sanctuary for democracy,” said Benson.

Benson says it’s about guaranteeing everyone the right to vote without fear of coercion or intimidation.

“And we and I as the chief election officer and we with law enforcement have every responsibility with law enforcement to ensure the calmness and the sanctity of that precinct, of that polling place is protected and that voters fundamental right to vote is unfettered,” Benson says.

But gun rights advocates say Benson is going too far, that she can’t use a generalized concern about a possible threat to stop residents from exercising a right.

Tom Lambert is with the group Michigan Open Carry. 

“While Miss Benson may have some personal misgivings about firearms, super-imposing those misgivings onto every person with a firearm and claiming that that person is inherently engaging in voter intimidation is, it’s asinine,” said Lambert. 

On Tuesday, a Michigan Court of Claims judge agreed, and the state Court of Appeals just backed up that decision. Both decisions say if Benson wanted to ban open carry, she should have gone through the state’s formal rule-making process, instead or wanting until Election Day is around the corner.

Benson says she would have acted sooner if she had been aware of growing threats at the polls.

The organization Militia Watch identifies Michigan – along with Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon -- as states with a higher high risk of armed militias attempting interference with elections.

“The unexpected always happens on Election Day and I’m sure this is the case for this election more than any other than we’ve had,” said Benson.

Wendy Williams is training to be a poll worker in Flint and says she’d like to know what the rules will be, how they’ll be enforced, and what will be expected of people whose jobs are typically limited to checking voter  IDs, not enforcing firearms bans.

“It’s concerning, of course, but I kind of consider it an act of patriotism to safeguard the polls, to be there, to try and make sure that this goes through in a fair way for everyone no matter their affiliation,” Williams says.

“We will have this resolved by November 3rd and we will make it clear exactly what the rules are and are not prior to the people going into the polls on that particular day.”

State Attorney General Dana Nessel said she will take this case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

“And I feel confident saying this: Irrespective of how the case out, we will have law enforcement in every jurisdiction of the state that is there to ensure the safety of all voters," says Nessel.

And the nation is watching what happens in Michigan.

14 states and the District of Columbia filed a brief supporting the position that bringing guns into polling places is intimidating and should not be allowed.

Rick Pluta is the Capitol Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He is heard daily on WCMU's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.