In Michigan, we now fear ‘poll watchers’ with assault weapons as well as Covid

Andrea Collier
·4-min read
Election 2020 Michigan (Copyright 2020 Associated Press)
Election 2020 Michigan (Copyright 2020 Associated Press)

We are just days out from the election and the country is being torn apart at the seams. Michigan, a battleground state in this election cycle, is a snapshot of the unrest and perfect storm caused by a global pandemic, civil unrest, and a tenuous economy.

In April, dozens of Trump supporters from around the state showed up at the State Capitol with assault rifles, demanding to be let in. They were protesting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders to close schools and non-essential businesses in order to protect the state against the aggressive spread of Covid-19. There have been several gun-toting protests across the state since then. Some state legislators hired bodyguards this year because they feared for their lives. And just a month ago, the FBI revealed they had foiled a plot from 13 men affiliated with militia-type organizations and white supremacy groups to kidnap, torture and execute Governor Whitmer.

The dog-whistles about voter intimidation from President Trump to his base around the country started during the first debate. He cast doubt on widespread mail-in and early voting, claiming that "this is not going to end well." During the debates, the President also urged his supporters, as he has done before, "to go into the polls and watch very carefully"; specifically, he said that he needed an “army”. Donald Trump Jr. continued the rhetoric in a video posted online, saying in it: "We need you to help us watch them. Not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards.”

It was with this context that, on October 16th, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a new state guidance that banned firearms from “the polling place, clerk’s office(s), or absent voter counting board” this year, due to the fact that guns at the ballot boxes “may cause disruption, fear or intimidation for voters, election workers and others present." It makes sense, right? Most of us thought so.

But in a stunning move, a Michigan judge blocked the guidance just 10 days later, saying Benson had exceeded her authority. According to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll, the majority of Michigan voters from both parties support banning guns and the open carrying of firearms at polling places. Just who Judge Christopher Murray thought he was representing when he decided to allow people to carry firearms into polling places and voter counting boards is anyone’s guess.

It wasn’t guns but the fear of Covid-19 exposure that drove my husband and I to get ballots via mail. 2020 is the first year we have not stood in line to vote in person. As of October 28th, over 2.3 million ballots of a projected five million votes have already been received in Michigan. Nobody guessed that early voting might protect us from voter intimidation via assault weapons as well as a pandemic.

Most states allow political parties and campaigns to appoint people to sit inside polling sites to monitor voting. But there are specific rules governing what they can and can't do. Generally, if a poll watcher has a concern or wants to challenge a voter's qualifications, they're required to bring the issue up with the chief on-site election official. They are strictly prohibited from interfering with or directly approaching voters.

It's the self-appointed poll watchers — those who might show up at the polls unannounced — that have some people more worried.

Early in-person voting has been a phenomenon around the country. Friends gave detailed reports on the long lines they waited in at the polls. Two hours. Five hours. Nine hours. I was again worried that self-appointed poll “watchers” would show up and cause voting chaos and intimidation. But by all accounts, there has been no real disruption, only the challenges of managing social distance when there are hundreds of people in line for blocks and blocks. 77 percent of early voting ballots have been returned at the time of writing.

As lawmakers and public officials continue to debate the issue of guns at the polls next week, there is a collective sigh of relief from Michiganders who voted early. Who wants to wear a mask and a bullet-proof vest in order to vote? And what world are we in now that we have to worry about that eventuality?