Renegade Michigan sheriffs are saying they won't enforce a ban on guns in polling stations, even after the feds busted an armed militia plot to kidnap the state's Democratic governor.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a directive last week banning open carry at the polls on Nov. 3 amid growing concerns about armed voter intimidation and in response to a foiled militia plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
But within days of Benson’s directive, gun rights groups and some right-wing sheriffs said it was unnecessary and that they would ensure safety at the polls in their own way. To them, the freedom to openly carry a firearm while voting holds symbolic, historical significance. To others, the presence of guns at polling stations are an uneasy and unnecessary addition that has the potential to thwart the democratic process.
Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy put out a Facebook video where he said he wasn’t encouraging people to open carry, but if they did, he wasn’t going to arrest them unless they were actively involved in “voter intimidation.”
“As much as an Amendment guy as I am, as much as a freedom guy as I am, sometimes just because you can do something doesn't necessarily make it a good idea,” Murphy said. “However, if you are gonna open carry, go in, get your ballot, fill in your bubbles, and get out and go home. Don’t make an issue of it. Just do your thing and get outta there.”
“I wouldn’t say I would or would not enforce [the directive],” Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich told VICE News. “If people are disorderly, they’re gonna be in trouble. I’ll ask them not to be. If people are disruptive to the voting process, same thing.”
At least three sheriffs including Murphy won’t commit to enforcing the directive, and they’re joined by a handful of local clerks in their opposition to the ban. One county GOP group called the directive “yet another brazenly unconstitutional overreach” from Democratic state leaders. The Michigan Association of Police Chiefs has also weighed in, saying that officers feel “uncomfortable trying to enforce something they clearly don’t have the authority to enforce.”
Anticipating pushback from conservative counties, Attorney General Dana Nessel said her office would dispatch Michigan State Police to areas where officials suspected county sheriffs would not enforce the ban or other voter intimidation statutes.
The sheriffs who voiced opposition to the ban are part of the growing, nationwide “Constitutional Sheriff” movement, which posits that the office of the sheriff has higher authority than state and federal office. In recent years, adherents of the movement have vowed not to enforce gun laws (which spurred the Second Amendment Sanctuary Movement), COVID-19 restrictions, and federal land use regulations.
The movement has been criticized for espousing language and ideas that are closely related to the self-styled militia movement.
The often cozy relationship between law enforcement and armed anti-government extremists has become increasingly scrutinized in recent months. Police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, thanked some armed, self-styled militiamen for being on the scene only hours before one of them shot and killed two protesters, and the police chief in Newport News, Virginia, gave chocolate milk and a PA system to an anti-government “Boogaloo Boi” who was staging a protest outside police headquarters.
The relationship in Michigan was spotlighted when Sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County made remarks that appeared to defend the men who were allegedly plotting to kidnap Gov. Whitmer. Leaf had also appeared alongside some of the men at an anti-lockdown rally at the Capitol in Lansing earlier this year.
“What concerns me… are the loose associations at all with law enforcement,” Michigan AG Nessel said in an interview with MSNBC after the kidnapping plot arrests last week. “I have a hard time as a law enforcement official seeing how any law enforcement officials could support these groups or want to intermingle with them or participate in events, but I’m telling you this is what we’ve actually seen.”
In addition to the pushback from local law enforcement, Open Carry Michigan Inc., a gun rights advocacy organization, is preparing to sue the state. The group’s president, Joey Roberts, told VICE News that their board of directors voted this week to pursue litigation, but he was unable to give a timetable for when it would be filed.
Asked whether bringing a gun to the polls is really worth fighting for, Roberts replied, “We have a fundamental right to self-protection, and we don’t feel that simply going to the polls, you should have to give up that right to exercise another right.”
Michigan isn’t the only state where officials are on high alert for possible voter intimidation. Ten states (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas), plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, have laws explicitly banning guns and other weapons from polling places. But intense polarization and a surge in paramilitary activity across the country has led to widespread concerns about possible violence on Election Day. Paranoia and conspiracies about “voter fraud” have recently rippled from the fringes into the mainstream.
During the Sept. 29 debate, President Donald Trump urged supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Since then, a network of his supporters dubbed “Trump’s Army” have pledged to station themselves at the polls.
After Trump’s remarks, experts at Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection published a fact sheet on voter intimidation, state laws on guns at polling places, and laws about “unauthorized private militia groups.”