Eddie Fulmer will cast his ballot for Donald Trump on Election Day with a .45-caliber pistol visibly strapped to his hip. Though he thinks voter fraud is a problem, Fulmer will not be monitoring the polls, and he doesn’t believe that other voters in his pocket of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, will recoil at the sight of his gun.
“People are going to vote just like they walk around in daily life,” said Fulmer, president of the gun rights group BamaCarry. “It may seem silly, but we believe that a law-abiding citizen should be able to protect himself — wherever he is.”
In statements derided across the political spectrum, Trump has claimed that the election is “rigged” and exhorted supporters to monitor polling places for fraud. His declarations have civil and voting rights groups bracing for what they fear will be a turbulent November 8, with supporters of the Republican presidential candidate intimidating voters and provoking conflicts. The prospect that some self-appointed election monitors may be toting guns is especially alarming.
But a dozen prominent gun rights activists in as many states who spoke with The Trace said they didn’t know of anyone making such plans, and said that fears of firearms at polls are overblown. Some gun owners will bring their weapons with them to vote in places where they are allowed to do so, these people said, but it won’t be for purposes of intimidation.
“I’ve not heard of anybody who said they were going to be outside armed, protesting, anything like that,” said Brett Pucillo, president of Ohio Carry Inc., a self-described education and advocacy organization. “They will go vote and then leave.”
Worries of angry confrontations on Election Day have brought new attention to the patchwork of state regulations that govern carrying firearms in and near voting locations. In many places, those rules are so confusing that they flummox poll workers and gun owners alike.
Some states, including otherwise gun-friendly Texas and Georgia, explicitly prohibit firearms at polling stations. But others state laws are less clear. Illinois and Virginia, for example, don’t ban weapons at voting places specifically, but they do bar them from schools, where many polling sites are housed. Ohio prohibits guns at places of worship, government buildings, and school safety zones.
Guy Relford, an Indiana attorney who has made a living defending people’s gun rights, said he wouldn’t be able to carry into his polling place at a church even though guns are allowed in places of worship because the property also includes a daycare and a school. While gun owners have gotten better about researching local laws, Relford said the nuances often caused confusion, and he worried that people would inadvertently break the rules. “Yes, it’s absolutely easy to run afoul of this,” he said.
At polling sites set up in places where firearms are allowed, and the rules are widely understood, gun owners who routinely carry their weapon in public won’t likely change their habits to cast a vote, officials at gun rights organizations said.
“What’s so special about a polling place that your right to defend yourself ought to be abridged?” said Charles Heller, a spokesman for the Arizona Citizens Defense League.
This campaign season has been as tense as any in decades, with fights breaking out at rallies, egged on, at times, by Trump himself. This month, two armed Trump supporters camped outside of a campaign office in Virginia in what many saw as an attempt to menace a Democratic Congressional candidate there. Two days later, someone set off a firebomb that torched a local Republican Party headquarters building in North Carolina.
Deuel Ross, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recently told Talking Points Memo that his group would be observing elections in five southern states, many of which allow people to openly carry firearms in public places. He said the presence of armed civilians near or in polling sites has the potential to intimidate voters and scare them away.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, reported this week that radical fringe elements had raised the specter of civil war and violence should Clinton win. As for Election Day itself, a spokesperson said the center was monitoring developments but hadn’t “seen much as of right now” in the way of threats.
Law enforcement and election officials in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Colorado, Mississippi, and Louisiana said they had not heard about any organized disruptions planned for Election Day, and most said they were not taking unusual steps to prepare.
A spokesman for the elections division in Denver, Alton Dillard, said poll workers had received active shooter training for the first time this year, but that it had nothing to do with rhetoric from Trump.
“We know things are a little heightened in the country now, but this is pretty much standard operating procedure for us,” Dillard said.
In July, Trump supporters rallied outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, some openly carrying firearms. Officials in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, said they had met with local law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice to ensure a rapid response if any incident occurred.
While it would not be illegal for people to stand outside a polling place in Ohio with rifles slung over their shoulders, Pat McDonald, the county elections director, said he hopes no one does that.
“I am going to have all precautions in place to ensure that there are no shenanigans, no potential problems where two groups of people are in conflict,” McDonald said. “I could see it being a little unnerving if someone was walking back and forth with a rifle.”
People sharply disagree over whether it’s appropriate to carry into the voting booth. Some say guns make voters feel uncomfortable in a way that might sway their vote. In 2014, after Alabama’s attorney general declared that carrying guns into most polling places was legal, several sheriffs lambasted the measure as undermining the democratic process.
“That intimidates a whole lot of people,” then-Montgomery County Sheriff D.T. Marshall told a local television station. “And some of them will say they have rights, and they do have rights, but on the other hand, people have other rights too at polling places, and that’s not to be intimidated when they vote.”
While some gun owners want lawmakers to eliminate restrictions on carrying into polling places, those who spoke with The Trace said changing that part of the law was a low priority. “There are far greater infringements on our rights that we need to get to first,” said Heller, of the Arizona Citizens Defense League.
Gerald Stoudemire, president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, said the ban on weapons at the polling places in his state dated back to Reconstruction, and his group had no intention of trying to change it.
“The polling places here — and I’m not talking inner cities — are secure areas,” he said. “You don’t have a problem here with threats or intimidation.”
Gun owners also said they don’t understand why anyone would be afraid of someone coming to their polling place armed.
People who harbor such fears “are like old ladies in tennis shoes,” said John Snyder, a gun rights lobbyist and vocal Trump supporter in Florida. “They’re scared of anything that goes boom.”
Additional reporting by Alex Yablon, Dan Friedman, JoVona Taylor, and Mike Spies.
[Photo: AP/Gerry Broome]