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NH, Vt. election officials mull concerns about guns at polls, voter intimidation

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2020 9:45:10 PM
Modified: 10/24/2020 9:45:06 PM

WEST LEBANON — As poll workers, state officials and local police gear up for Election Day, the increasingly tense political climate across the country has brought to light a new concern: What happens if people with guns show up at the polls on Nov. 3?

In both New Hampshire and Vermont, anyone who can legally own a firearm has long been able to stand outside the polls with a rifle slung over their backs or with a gun in a holster, and, in all New Hampshire polling places they can even walk in and vote. Vermont allows “open carry” inside most voting stations as well, except when the polling place is on school grounds, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.

But national conversations over armed militias and voter intimidation, coupled with unsubstantiated Republican allegations of voter fraud, have brought the issue to the forefront of state and local officials’ minds.

“It’s certainly on our radar, given the rhetoric coming from the president,” Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said in a recent interview. “People are concerned. The rhetoric from the president and others is reckless and dangerous.”

Local election officials around the Upper Valley have also been considering whether this election warrants any extra safety precautions.

“I think there are forces in the United States right now that are mobilizing people to go out and intimidate voters. It would be foolish of us to not bear all that in mind,” Hanover Town Moderator Jeremy Eggleton said, adding that he will be on the lookout for any behavior that could intimidate voters.

New Hampshire state officials say they do not think the issue will be a problem on Nov. 3, but the perceived threat is so serious in Michigan, which is also an “open carry” state, that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced new restrictions earlier this month. Benson moved to prohibit guns from polling stations, clerks’ offices and places where absentee ballots are counted in Michigan. In the announcement, Benson wrote that the presence of firearms can cause disruption or intimidation among voters. Gun rights groups last week filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, and some Michigan police chiefs have questioned whether it is enforceable.

The concern over intimidation, and particularly armed people outside the polls, has been growing nationally over the last few months as President Donald Trump has made repeated unverified claims of voter fraud this election and told his supporters to “go watch very carefully.”

As a result, some people have voiced worries about potential armed intimidation inside the polls, as well. Poll watchers from political parties are a regular feature during Election Day; in Vermont, they are appointed and only two from each party are allowed inside the polls. In New Hampshire, any voter is also allowed to watch at the polls, but they must keep their distance and can be removed if they do anything that rises to the level of voter intimidation.

Tension about possible violence also heightened early this month when the FBI brought weapons, terrorism and conspiracy charges against 13 men, including six who plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, over restrictions she imposed to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donovan, a Democrat like Whitmer, called the threat to her safety “un-American,” and said that his office is addressing concerns over armed groups at the polls, in part through an information pamphlet on voter intimidation laws, which his office released earlier this month. The pamphlet specifically states that voter intimidation and harassment is illegal, and anyone who interferes with a voter at the polls is subject to a $1,000 fine.

Additionally, while firearms are allowed at most Vermont polling places — except for schools — gun owners standing near a polling place are not allowed to hold a firearm in a threatening or intimidating manner, which includes pointing the gun at another person, the pamphlet said.

“I want to make sure that people know we’re doing everything in our power to make sure their right to vote is not impeded,” said Donovan, who noted that many voters will be sending in absentee ballots this year, since the state sent ballots to every registered voter.

Balancing act

Eric Covey, a spokesman for the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, said Vermont will continue to observe state laws regarding guns at the polls, but that officials don’t expect firearms or voter intimidation to be an issue on Election Day.

For people who decide to vote in person on Nov. 3, Donovan said “a process is underway to have more robust communication and coordination” between local law enforcement agencies and state officials ahead of — and on — Election Day. However, he added, police presence at the polls is a “balancing act.”

“You certainly don’t want law enforcement at the polls unless you need it,” he said.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is taking a different approach to the upcoming election.

“We have no specific concern and we’re not aware of any specific concern,” Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said in a recent interview.

Though New Hampshire is an open-carry state and people are allowed to enter their polling station with a firearm — provided they don’t use it in a threatening manner — Edwards said the office has never experienced armed militias at polling stations during previous elections.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner also said New Hampshire, like Vermont, would not take the steps his counterpart in Michigan has ordered.

“We have a very strong gun article in our (state) constitution, more so than the federal constitution,” Gardner said.

Edwards said safety is always a concern on Election Day, and the office is preparing for this election as they have in every previous election: by having biweekly calls with elections officials regarding preparations and by setting up an “election hotline,” which people can use to call in with questions.

Edwards also said national stories about potential voter intimidation serve to “agitate” a situation that is not currently an issue in New Hampshire.

Low-key police presence

But it is a concern among election officials in Hanover, who say they’re figuring out ways to address concerns over armed groups and voter intimidation.

Eggleton said Friday he had a standard pre-election meeting with Hanover police and Town Manager Julia Griffin regarding security at the polls, which is an issue he said he’s “particularly concerned” about this year.

However, he added that armed militias outside a polling station has never been a problem during previous elections in Hanover, a fact that gives him hope about this year. If armed groups do come to the polls this Election Day, Eggleton said he will ensure they don’t harass or intimidate anyone.

“They’re allowed to assemble, but not in a way that intimidates voters,” Eggleton said.

In previous elections, he said he hasn’t wanted police at the polls, but this election he’s asking Hanover police to station one officer by Leverone Field House, where voting is being held this year.

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said his department is following Eggleton’s wishes to have a very small police presence at the polls, but they will be ready to respond if the moderator or other election officials have concerns or issues with someone at the polling station. Though, he added, they are not doing any special training or preparation for the day.

“We’ll play our normal roles and be there if we need to be there,” Dennis said. “We’re ready to go for what may come.”

Newport Town Moderator Biddy Irwin said the idea of armed militias at the polls is something she and other town moderators in New Hampshire have discussed several times in recent weeks.

“Safety at the polls will be a big thing this year,” Irwin said, but added that she’s not doing any new preparation ahead of Election Day, and that she plans to have only one officer stationed at the polls. “I don’t want to plant the seed that we’re gearing up for a militia.”

She said that, while she’s been watching national concerns rise over armed groups and voter intimidation, she doesn’t think that will be an issue in Newport, which doesn’t have “a militia mentality.”

Most local police departments in the Upper Valley say they’re keeping an eye out for instances of voter intimidation or safety issues, but they’re not taking any extra steps this year.

In Claremont, Chief Mark Chase said he’s been watching the news and is aware of national concerns over voter intimidation this year, but that he hasn’t “heard any information that it’s going to occur” in the Claremont area.

He said the department isn’t doing anything differently this year, but that could change as Election Day draws closer.

“Any department that’s made a complete decision at this point will probably have to change it,” he said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.


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