U.S. Attorney Urges Voters to Think Carefully Before Bringing Guns to N.H. Polling Places | New Hampshire Public Radio

U.S. Attorney Urges Voters to Think Carefully Before Bringing Guns to N.H. Polling Places

Nov 2, 2020

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional comments from the United States Attorney for New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office.

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, as gun-free school zones are a matter of federal law. But the United States Attorney for New Hampshire says anyone thinking about bringing a gun into a polling place should proceed with caution.

“If you wear a firearm at the polls, it may be legal, but if you wear the firearm, you're certainly going to draw attention to yourself if it's visible, there's no doubt about that,” U.S. Attorney Scott Murray told NHPR. “That then raises the question, if you're in a school, under the federal statute, whether you're violating the federal prohibition. And I can tell you, if we get a report from someone that that's happening, if someone called the office and says that the prohibition is being violated, we're going to look into it."

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

Murray said there are many exemptions within the federal gun-free school zone policy, so it’s not a “blanket prohibition” against any guns in any school buildings. Even so, he said those considering whether to bring a firearm with them to the polls — at a school or otherwise — should understand the stakes of doing so. 

While Murray cautioned that his office would have to evaluate any reported incident on a case-by-case basis, and “the simple fact that the person has got a gun on is not legally going to amount to coercion or intimidation,” he also said his office is ready to treat any voter interference or other conflicts at the polls as a “very serious matter.”

“If people are uneasy at the polls, and you’re carrying a firearm and that makes them more uneasy, it certainly raises the potential for an allegation that someone was intimidated, which in order to be a crime would have to be proven,” Murray said. “But it raises the issue, and beyond that, the stakes are pretty heavy at the polls if you look at applicable laws.”

And on top of that, Murray said, people should also consider that New Hampshire polling places are already closely monitored for security.

“You have officials at the polls who are charged with maintaining security,” Murray said. “If you have election officials, generally you have a law enforcement officer there. When you go to the polls, you're not on your own. There are government officials there that are charged with maintaining security at the polls.”

While the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has deferred to federal authorities on enforcing gun restrictions at polling places, they too said they will be on alert to respond to anyone, armed or not, who is interfering with someone else's ability to vote. 

This policy at the state level isn't new, and 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 Election Day, 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 without a license.

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 that policy is being challenged in court.

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,” Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen, who leads the state’s Election Law Unit 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.

Questions about how to handle people carrying firearms have emerged in several recent pre-election planning calls with local pollworkers. 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. “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. 

"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,” Chong Yen said during a call with local clerks in recent weeks.

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.

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 the week of Oct. 20 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.”

In the days leading up to the election, both the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office said they were unaware of any specific threats of violence at the polls.

“At this juncture, we have absolutely no reports of threats having been made by militia or outside groups to disrupt the vote in New Hampshire,” Murray said Friday afternoon. “We've heard nothing along those lines.”

On Monday morning, the attorney general’s office reiterated the same.

“This office continues to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and at this time, we are not aware of any credible threats related to Election Day,” Kate Gianquinto, the agency’s communications director, wrote in an email.

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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