Pennsylvania state elections officials say intimidating behavior – such as “ostentatious” carrying of weapons – should be reported and investigated, though voters may, under state law, carry guns to the polls Tuesday.
40 States that have broad laws allowing legally carried concealed weapons or guns in polling places
Pennsylvania, like all but six states in the country, permits legally carried firearms in polling places. Four of those states – Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina – ban concealed weapons but allow open-carry at the polls. Schools and courthouses are excepted.
Still, having a gun at the polls in Pennsylvania could become unlawful, if coupled with aggressive behavior or actions that intimidate voters, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees the state’s elections. The department recently handed down guidance to precinct supervisors. Intimidating actions listed include blocking entry to polling places, “ostentatious showing of weapons” and handing out false or misleading election information.
The guidance comes amid increased concerns of possible voter intimidation this year as several groups have mobilized volunteers to act as voter fraud protectors and to conduct amateur exit polls. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has galvanized supporters with repeated suggestions there will be widespread voter fraud and the election is rigged.
Centre County Democratic Committee director Katie Blume said she trusted local elections officials to handle any issues.
“We have amazing poll workers. . . . I think both the Democratic Party and Republican Party in Centre County are all pretty level-headed people,” she said.
In rural parts of the county, she said, it’s common to see people legally carrying guns. A gun owner herself, Blume said she wouldn’t have a firearm at the polls and could understand why it might feel threatening to others. But if it’s legally carried and otherwise causes no disruption, a holstered gun likely won’t amount to voter intimidation, she said.
Centre County elections Director Joyce McKinley said there had never been a local polling place gun-violence incident she’d known of, and she has no reason to think 2016 will be different.
Pennsylvania is unique in the way it certifies poll watchers – designated by political parties and candidates. Poll watchers may challenge voters’ eligibility and keep up with turnout. Commonly, the Centre County Republican Party uses “strikers” and “runners,” said Steve Miller, chairman of the Centre County Republican Party.
Strikers, he said, keep up with the names of people who have already voted. Runners report to party officials who hasn’t voted and the party calls, asking them to vote, Miller said.
In some parts of Pennsylvania, counties are recruiting an increased number of poll watchers but state officials say they don’t track those numbers statewide. The number of Centre County poll watchers this year is about the same as in the 2012 presidential election, McKinley said.
Poll workers, McKinley said, will be alert for aggressive or intimidating behavior, but she’s not particularly concerned about the state law permitting guns.
Still, one national group said it was not taking chances.
Igor Volsky, who heads Guns Down and works as deputy director for the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, said that voter safety could be jeopardized with guns. Campaign rhetoric calling for volunteers at the polls to combat fraud has ramped up concern about violence Tuesday, he said.
Guns Down, which is not affiliated with the Center for American Progress, has a hotline for voters to text if they see a gun at the polls. The voter will be directed through the Election Protection coalition. In some cases, law enforcement could be notified. Guns Down was established through the New Venture Fund, a nonprofit group that grants money for public interest projects.
This kind of thing will only entice people.
Steve Miller, Centre County Republican Party
Such an attempt to curb gun-toting voters Tuesday could have the opposite effect, Miller said.
“This kind of thing will only entice people,” he said. “This has been my fear about our entire election process this year. We are so divided.”
Miller said he advocated for gun rights. In most cases in Centre County, he said, people don’t know whether another person is carrying a gun.
His GOP county party will use poll watchers Tuesday but he is not organizing any group to specifically carry guns, he said. Election Day, he said, should be a quiet, respectful process.
“It doesn’t benefit anyone if there’s violence at an election booth,” Miller said.