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Sight Magazine – Essay: Guns at U.S. polling sites have long sparked fears of intimidation and violence — but few states ban their presence


A couple from Mesa, Arizona were casting their ballots on October 21, 2022 for the upcoming midterm elections when they saw two people carrying guns and wearing tactical gear hanging around the Maricopa County drop box. The armed pair on the left when officers later arrived.

It was not an isolated incident. A lawsuit filed Oct. 24 by the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and Voto Latino noted that on multiple occasions “armed and masked individuals” associated with the group Clean Elections USA had collected in drop boxes around the county “for the express purpose of deterring voters”

A drive-thru ballot drop. IMAGE: winged wolf/iStockphoto.

These concerns are far from hypothetical: As of this fall, more than 1,000 threats against election officials — some explicitly mentioning gun violence — were under review by federal law enforcement. Responding to the situation in Arizona, the Department of Justice noted on October 31 that the presence of armed individuals raised “serious concerns” of voter intimidation.

Voter intimidation is a crime in arizona – as is Across the country. In the case of Maricopa County, a the judge ruled on November 1 that the actions of the individuals – who present themselves as anti-voter fraud activists – have crossed the line and issued a restraining order. Under the order, those associated with Clean Elections USA are now prohibited from openly carrying firearms within 250 feet of a ballot box. Concealed firearms will be permitted, however, and the restriction only affects people connected to Clean Elections USA.

The presence of armed individuals at voting sites adds to concerns about the prospect of election-related intimidation and violence, which have worsened in recent years.

As Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program at the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment, recently reported to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, political violence “is considered more acceptableby the public than five years ago.

False accusations of stolen elections – such as those made repeatedly by former President Donald Trump – are “a great instigator political unrest,” Kleinfeld noted, though she added that extremists from both political parties have reported a greater willingness to resort to political violence.

These concerns are far from being hypothetical: as of this fall, more than 1,000 threats election officials – some explicitly mention armed violence — were being investigated by federal law enforcement agencies. Reacting to the situation in Arizona, the Department of Justice on October 31 noted that the presence of armed individuals raises “serious concerns” of voter intimidation.

These concerns are heightened by the fact that only seven states prohibit the carrying of weapons in polling stations. Five other states prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons in polling stations. But in swing states like Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, people are allowed to carry guns even when they vote.

The lack of a federal ban on guns at voting sites prompted Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, to introduce the Fearless Voting Actbill that would “prohibit the possession of a firearm within 100 yards of any federal election site.”

Pitched battles and voter intimidation
Of course, election-related violence is a part of america’s past. For example, the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party of the 1850s often resort to armed violence using an array of weapons, and Democrat-Whig party battles broke out in the 1830s. In the mid-19th century, cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans occasionally witnessed pitched battles between warring political factions at election time. And lethal violence was widely used after the civil war to systematically terrorize and deprive of rights Southern black voters.

Yet many people in the United States also believed from the outset that guns and violence were contrary to the values ​​of a democratic nation, especially, but not limited to, around elections. From 1776, Constitution of the State of Delaware said: ‘To prevent any use of violence or force in said elections, no one shall appear at any of them armed.’ It further stipulated that, to protect voters, a weapons-free zone would be set up within one mile of polling places for 24 hours before and after Election Day.

In his Declaration of State Rights of 1787, New York decreed that “all elections shall be free and that no one shall by force of arms, or maliciously, or threaten, or otherwise purport to disturb or prevent any citizen of this State from making a free election”.

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In my own research on historical gun laws, I found about a dozen states that specifically banned guns during elections or at polling places in laws enacted between the 1770s and the early 20th century. But more importantly, from the 1600s to the 1800s, I found that at least three-quarters of all colonies and later states enacted laws criminalizing the brandishing of firearms and displaying them in any place public – and that would certainly include polling stations at election time.

As I say in my new book, The gun dilemma, early American lawmakers understood that the public carrying of firearms, by its very nature, was intimidating. And that extended not just to brandishing a gun, that is, showing one in a threatening manner, but also to just a gun display – just showing a gun in a public place.

Modern studies confirm this understanding. Analysts in areas such as psychology and criminology concluded that the mere presence of firearms increases aggression and violence. To quote a different analysis, a study of more than 30,000 manifestations in the United States from 2020 to 2021 found that when guns were present, protests were more than six times more likely to turn violent or destructive.

Create an “island of calm”
According to polls, large majorities of Americans oppose the public carrying of firearms. A 2017 study reported that two-thirds to more than four-fifths of respondents oppose the public bearing of arms in various contexts, including at the ballot box. And as recently as 2018, the Supreme Court affirmed that polling stations on Election Day should be “an island of calm in which voters can peacefully contemplate their choices”.

History and modern research support the conclusion that the presence of firearms in public defeats this purpose. Indeed, they can induce “great fear and contention”, or so says New Jersey. in a law passed in 1686.The conversation

Robert Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the Department of Political Science at the College of the State University of New York at Cortland. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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