Marie Wicks, the city clerk of East Lansing, Michigan, has been training election workers for more than a decade, and every year they ask what to do if someone brings a gun to a polling place.

“I dread when this question comes up, because I have neither a definitive answer, nor a comforting response,” Wicks told a state Senate committee in February, speaking in favor of a bill that would prohibit people from openly carrying firearms at voting sites. Under Michigan’s current law, partisan observers could come armed to watch election workers and voters this November, and that, Wicks said, “leaves me more angry and frustrated than anything.” 

Concerns about possible voter intimidation have prompted a growing number of states to try to limit or outright ban people from toting firearms at polling sites and ballot drop boxes. The trend comes as the United States is grappling with rising threats of political violence ahead of the 2024 election rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Michigan and at least four other states — Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Vermont — are considering placing restrictions on guns in polling places for the first time, a Trace review of state laws and pending legislation has found. Another five states are weighing bills to strengthen or expand restrictions that are already on the books.

Representative Angela Arsenault, a Democrat who’s co-sponsoring the bill to enact restrictions in Vermont, told The Trace that it would be a reasonable addition to other electioneering and anti-intimidation laws that her state already has in place.

“You can’t wear a T-shirt with a candidate’s name on it inside a polling place in Vermont, but you could carry a gun into the polling place,” Arsenault said. “Those two things just don’t add up.”

While Arsenault wants to preserve her state’s strong tradition of hunting and safe recreational gun use, she said lawmakers have to acknowledge the reality of living in 2024. “There is a very different gun culture that exists right now, one that has nothing to do with hunting and responsible gun ownership, and everything to do with violence and fear and power.” 

Currently, 21 states and Washington, D.C., explicitly limit firearms at voting sites. Nine of those states passed their laws over the past two years. They include Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Washington. 

New Mexico became the most recent state to impose restrictions, with legislation signed by Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 4. 

Republicans in most states have opposed such laws. But in New Mexico’s Legislature, Senate Republicans threw their support behind the ban after the House added an exemption for concealed carry permit holders that was supported by Senator Mark Moores, the GOP caucus chair. 

“Although my amendments weren’t taken before, I wish they had been, because this bill would have sailed through a long time ago,” Moores said on the Senate floor after the chamber approved the amended bill unanimously. “This is the right thing to do in this environment.” 

In Michigan — where voters and election workers faced intimidation and threats of violence during the 2020 election — the bill to ban open carry at polling places has already passed the House and Senate. But the two chambers must resolve differences between their respective versions before sending the legislation to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer for her signature.

If the ban becomes law, Michigan would bring the total number of states that ban carrying guns openly at polling places to six. Like New Mexico, the state will still allow licensed gun owners to tote their weapons concealed. Three states prohibit concealed carry at polling sites but have no explicit restrictions on open carry, potentially allowing people to bring long guns — like AR-15s — to vote. 

Only 13 states and the District of Columbia prohibit both concealed carry and open carry at election sites.

Many states ban guns at schools, courthouses, and other government-owned buildings that frequently serve as voting sites. But in 29 states, there is no law explicitly banning guns at all polling places, meaning that, at many sites, people will be allowed to bring guns.

Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank, said he expected the vast majority of voters to have a pleasant, seamless experience at the ballot box this year. “That said,” he added, “I think there have been some major trends in both gun regulation and the way that our democracy is functioning this year that give us a reason to be concerned about the sheer lack of regulation in many states.”

Morales-Doyle, who helped conduct an analysis of state gun laws surrounding elections, said the Supreme Court’s landmark 2022 decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen is another reason lawmakers are imposing these restrictions. 

Although the decision made it more difficult for states to impose strict rules on who can carry guns in public, the justices endorsed states regulating guns in “sensitive places,” explicitly listing polling sites as an example.

Morales-Doyle said states that previously relied on strict permitting regimes as their main mechanism for regulating guns in public are now following the Supreme Court’s advice and moving to restrict guns at specific sites instead. “The states that were directly affected by Bruen have responded and started doing this kind of regulating, but there’s still many other states that need to do that,” he said.

Many states known for having permissive gun regulations — like Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana — have banned open and concealed carry in polling places for years. 

Every Republican lawmaker in Michigan voted against their state’s proposed ban after opposition from gun rights proponents, who argued that preventing people from carrying guns at polling places would make voters less safe, not more.

“There have been zero incidents that cannot be handled under existing law,” Tom Lambert, legislative director of Michigan Open Carry, said during the February committee hearing. “And please, it makes absolutely zero sense to make more mass-murderer empowerment zones. There’s zero logic in doing something like that. Do not make more of those zones.”