Aristide Economopoulos/for NJ Monitor
In the wake of heightened scrutiny surrounding elections and the harassment of poll workers, a group of Michigan Democrats is working with municipal and county clerks from around the state to pass legislation prohibiting firearms from polling places.
State Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing) is the sponsor of HB 4127, which alongside HB 4128 would ban firearms in and within 100 feet of polling places in Michigan on Election Day and during early voting periods.
She said it’s important to her that people feel safe when they go to cast their vote.
“People should be able to exercise those rights freely and without any threat of a firearm being involved, so I think that this is a very reasonable restriction, and for a very reasonable amount of time,” Tsernoglou said.
Several county and municipal clerks have spoken out in favor of the bills both in testimony to the House Elections Committee and online. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said that in her experience, the presence of firearms in polling places can sometimes be seen by voters as a form of intimidation, and discourage people from casting their ballot.
“There have been numerous shootings and some individuals may see a firearm and immediately feel intimidated,” Byrum said. “Some may not, but it is imperative that we make sure that when people are exercising their right to vote, they are free of any intimidation or harassment – and intimidation absolutely could look like a weapon.”
This isn’t the first time officials have tried to remove firearms from polling places. Ahead of Election Day in 2020, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson attempted to disallow Michiganders from carrying weapons to the polls, but her order was struck down by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
A representative for Benson’s office testified in support of the bills at the committee hearing in February.
Former East Lansing Interim Clerk Marie Wicks testified in support of the bills only two weeks after a mass shooting killed three students at Michigan State University. She said in her testimony that if passed into law, the bills could help survivors of gun violence feel more comfortable going into polling places, which are often contained in public schools or churches.
“With at least five off campus precincts with heavy student presence, I cannot fathom how triggering for [MSU students] a weapon would be in a polling location, and quite possibly for many others as well,” Wicks said. “Including newly naturalized citizens, people who have been incarcerated and served their time, or past victims of gun violence– this point cannot be overstated.”
Tsernoglou said that in today’s politically tense society, bringing guns into already politicized spaces could have a negative impact on people’s voting experiences.
“A lot of people take their kids with them when they vote, either, because it’s not a choice because their kids are with them that day, or because they want to have their kids participate and see that they have a voice,” Tsernoglou said. “I feel like people should feel safe to bring their families to those places.”
Opposition to the bills was voiced by several gun rights organizations, many of which expressed concerns that the bills would cause gun owners to accidentally commit a misdemeanor by carrying their weapons into the 100-foot zone established around a polling place.
Brady Schickinger, who testified on behalf of the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners (MCRGO) said that the bills should be modified to allow people with a Concealed Pistol License (CPL) to carry their firearms in polling places.
“We agree with the general intent of the bill; everyone should feel safe while voting,” Schickinger said. “But we can protect polling sites without a conflict with responsible gun ownership.”
Representatives for the MCRGO could not be reached for comment for this story.
As HB 4127 and 4128 will be subject to debate on the House floor, Tsernoglou said that their passage could help recruit and retain election workers in time for the 2024 state and federal election cycle.
“Over the past few years, there’s been an increase in threats and intimidation and harassment of election workers,” Tsernoglou said. “And this year in particular, we are going to need to recruit a lot more election workers for early voting as a result of Proposal 2, so we really need to work extra hard to keep those individuals safe in their jobs.”
Passed last year by voters, Proposal 2 expands voting rights in Michigan’s constitution, including a mandatory nine days of early in-person voting, state-funded absentee-ballot drop boxes and postage for absentee applications and ballots, and giving voters the right to file a single application to vote absentee in all elections.
“It is time that we take a serious look at the safety and security of our public service workers, whether that be state buildings, county buildings, or even local municipal buildings,” Byrum said. “Especially for election administrators – we have heightened scrutiny. There is more harassment and election administrators are being attacked, and they’re leaving the field and taking with them decades of institutional knowledge.”
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