Guns Will Be Allowed In Most N.H. Polling Places, But 'Voter Intimidation Will Not Be Tolerated' | New Hampshire Public Radio

Guns Will Be Allowed In Most N.H. Polling Places, But 'Voter Intimidation Will Not Be Tolerated'

Oct 24, 2020

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office says state and local authorities can’t prevent people from bringing guns into polling places, even those located in school buildings — but they will be on alert to respond to anyone, armed or otherwise, who is interfering with someone else's ability to vote.

"We are not able to use any of our New Hampshire election laws to prohibit a voter from entering to vote if they have a firearm, and that includes if the polling place is a school,” Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen, who leads the state’s Election Law Unit, during a call with local clerks earlier this week.

This policy isn't new, and state officials similarly said ahead of the 2016 elections that voters could not be barred from entering polling places because they're carrying a gun. Some voters and pollworkers have voiced anxiety about firearms around polling places on Nov. 3, particularly after President Trump called on supporters "to go into the polls and watch very carefully."

New Hampshire is an "open carry" state, meaning gun owners can openly carry a loaded firearm without a license or permit. Since 2017, the state has also allowed any lawful gun owner to carry a concealed weapon.

Officials in at least one other state, Michigan, recently announced plans to ban people from openly carrying firearms at polling places on Nov. 3, though the state is now facing a lawsuit over that policy.

While there’s no plan for a similar ban in New Hampshire, state authorities say they’re taking other precautions to ensure everyone who shows up on Election Day can cast their ballot safely and without interference.

“Voter intimidation will not be tolerated,” Chong Yen said. “Voter intimidation is a felony offense, it is something that is reportable to our office that we can look at and prosecute.”

About 130 schools will double as voting facilities in this year’s general election, according to a polling place directory on the Secretary of State’s website. Many districts are open only for remote or partially remote learning, and it’s not clear how many of those schools will also be holding in-person classes on Election Day.

The Secretary of State’s office convened three pre-election information sessions with local election officials this week, and questions about how to handle people carrying firearms came up in two of those meetings. While some local election officials sought clarification because their polling place is inside a school, others expressed broader concern about the possibility of armed observers showing up in general. 

“One thing that really is frightening me is everything in the news and everywhere about people coming in with guns, even people with a uniform, and they have a gun over their shoulder,” one local election official said during the calls. “So I would like to know definitely what we can do that day to protect us.”

In each instance, Chong Yen explained that New Hampshire law does not prohibit guns in polling places, or in schools for that matter. Rather, he said, gun-free school zones are enforced by federal authorities. 

“We've informed local officials, particularly law enforcement, that if there are any issues or concerns involving potential violation of the federal law, they're to contact the U.S. attorney's office and report the matter,” Chong Yen said during one of those calls.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Hampshire confirmed they would deal with complaints about violations of the federal gun-free school zone law. But the agency’s public information officer Mary Ellen McMahon noted that the law “is not a blanket prohibition on all gun possession in schools and contains multiple exceptions.”

“As with all potential violations of federal law, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will work with our law enforcement partners to review the facts of any individual case to determine whether a violation of federal law has occurred and assess whether it is appropriate to initiate a federal prosecution,” McMahon wrote in an email in response to questions from NHPR.

(For more on the U.S. Attorney's oversight role in New Hampshire elections, click here.)

In addition to all of the standard pre-election classes offered by the state, New Hampshire pollworkers also have the option this year of taking a virtual class on de-escalation techniques, hosted by the head of the state’s police training program.

And as they did before the September state primary, Chong Yen said the attorney general’s office hosted a call this week with local law enforcement to prepare them to be on-call during the general election. Police departments across the state have long worked with local election officials, and in many cases have provided on-site detail at local polling places, and Chong Yen said voters shouldn’t be alarmed if they see police at their polling place this year.

“It's something that has been a hallmark of our elections,” Chong Yen said, “not as a source of intimidation, but as a cooperative effort with police officers to make sure voters feel comfortable at the polling place.”

To report election-related problems to the New Hampshire Attorney General's office, call 1-866-868-3703 (1-866-VOTER03) or email electionlaw@doj.nh.gov. To contact the U.S. Attorney's Election Day Hotline, call 603-230-2503.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that questions about guns in polling places came up in all of the information sessions hosted with local election officials and, due to a data error, misstated the number of schools that are slated to serve as polling places; this post has been updated with the correct information.)

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