Nov. 3 is already shaping up to be an Election Day unlike any other as public safety officials prepare for tensions and the possibility of violence.
The move comes amid concerns about the rise of activity from militia-style groups, which recently culminated in the alleged plot by six men in Michigan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Peter Ambler, executive director of the Gabby Giffords Organization, said that “as a society and democracy, we should be very concerned” about the threat of armed intimation at polling places.
“This is a threat to voting that local state and national leaders should take very seriously — despite what you’ve heard from the president, you have seen some bipartisan attention paid to the threat of voting interference from foreign sources,” Ambler told Wake-Up Call. “I would argue that the threat posed to voting, to vote counting, and to the integrity of our democracy from armed individuals and groups is at this point greater.”
Though brandishing a weapon is banned under the umbrella of voter intimidation, just six states and the District of Columbia explicitly prohibit guns at polling sites outright while another four states prohibit concealed firearms at the polls, according to the Gabby Giffords Organization. Guns may also be prohibited when polling locations are on K–12 school property and other types of public grounds where firearms are not permitted. Even in cases where guns aren’t banned completely, nearly all states have laws that prohibit using firearms to intimidate others.
But even states, like Georgia, that explicitly ban guns at polling locations are at risk of seeing increased militia activity around the elections, per a joint report by ACLED, a crisis-mapping project, and the research group MilitiaWatch. The report identified potential hotspots of where militia activity might occur by taking into account a number of factors, such as where militias have done recruitment and training, and where there have been strong anti-coronavirus-lockdown protests.
Ambler argues that carrying guns at polling locations ultimately serves an anti-democratic purpose. In response to the potential threat of armed intimidation, the Gabby Giffords Organization has created a state-by-state guide that outlines the legality of guns at polling locations and restrictions on using guns for harassment or intimidation. Ambler said he hopes the resource helps ensure that local and state election officials have the “tools at their disposal in order to protect the ballot box.”
“If you are openly bringing a gun into a polling location, you do like to think that you are exercising your second amendment rights,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that you’re doing far more damage to your fellow Americans’ voting rights in the process.”
Ambler also argued that the rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump has only further heightened election tensions. During the first presidential debate, the president — when asked to condemn the white supremacist group the Proud Boys — told them to “stand back and stand by,” sparking bipartisan backlash. He later said that he didn’t know who the far-right group was but maintained they should “stand down.”
“We’ve already seen [how] the president’s words and rhetoric lead to tragic, deadly outcomes,” Ambler said, adding that Republicans should “condemn efforts to incite voter intimidation and violence at the polls.”
But other voting rights activists have said that it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Campaign Legal Center’s Gerry Hebert told NPR that the hype around the militia rhetoric is “designed to maybe keep people from showing up because they fear that there might be some activity, when, in fact, it’s just a chilling commentary.”
According to the same NPR report, military officials aren’t anticipating any particular problems of violence at the polls but they also aren’t ruling out street protests, the rise of armed groups and some violence after the election.
At the end of the day, Ambler believes that voters will exercise their fundamental right to vote.
“One bright spot that should give us hope is the will and determination of the American voter. As early results have shown, millions of Americans have cast their ballots, proving they will not be intimidated,” he said.
Written and reported by Tess Bonn.