Guns and poll watchers could cast shadow over election day in Michigan

Voters are concerned about intimidation at polls as divisive election draws to close

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Latisha Lawson rushed through the wind and cold, determined to cast her ballot at one of downtown Detroit’s dozens of early voting sites.

“I’m a little bit worried about election fraud, but I just have to trust the process and pray that it all works out,” Ms Lawson, 32, said on Sunday.

She is one of millions in Michigan and across the US who cast their ballots before Tuesday’s election.

As people trickled in and out of the quiet polling station in the early morning, many spoke about a charged atmosphere around this election, with some concerned that it could boil over into voter intimidation and even violence on election day.

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We are hoping that people don't bring their guns to the polls, that we don't have any issues and that the responsible gun owners will realise that it does make people uncomfortable

A recent poll by The Detroit News  found that 72 per cent of likely voters in Michigan were concerned about post-election violence, and almost 64 per cent were worried about foreign interference in the election.

President Donald Trump spent months questioning the integrity of the vote, making repeated unproven claims of fraud and dysfunction with mail-in-ballots, and urging his supporters to protect the election.

"I'm urging supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully," Mr Trump said during the first presidential debate on September 29.

"If it's a fair election, I am 100 per cent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that."

His son, Donald Trump Jr, posted a video that urged people to join the “army for Trump’s election security operation” and warned that the Democrats planned to “add millions of fraudulent ballots” to cancel votes for his father.

Michigan is considered a battleground state in this month’s election. Mr Trump won by a margin of 0.2 per cent in 2016, a little fewer than 11,000 votes.

The president’s calls are being answered in Michigan by dozens of conservative groups, including the Election Integrity Fund, which has trained more than 500 poll watchers to monitor Tuesday’s vote.

On their website, the group published a 39-page training manual on how to be a poll watcher.

Among the many points are tips to bring food and water and to brace for a long day, as well as how to report incidents and challenge a vote.

“If you care about your vote, you should care enough to protect it," an advertisement for the Guard the Vote operation read.

"We need an army of volunteers to make sure the Dems don’t play games with all those absentee ballots that will need to be counted."

Under law, registered poll watchers have the right to challenge people’s eligibility to vote and report actions by election workers.

But they cannot speak to voters or handle election materials.

Grass-roots organisations such as All Voting is Local have responded to these conservative calls by making sure they have enough of their own observers at polling stations.

“I’m confident that if anything happens we’ll be able to deal with it,” said Aghogho Edevebie, the Michigan director for the group.

“People should feel free to cast their ballot and make their voice heard.”

But others are more worried about conservative poll watchers being sent to minority communities in places such as Detroit that predominantly vote Democrat.

They believe their presence could lead to people not casting their vote.

“We drove here from Chicago, so that shows you how concerned we are,” said a liberal poll observer outside an early voting site in inner-city Detroit, about 450 kilometres from his home.

Guns at polling sites

There are also concerns in Michigan that some poll observers could be armed.

Michigan is an open-carry state, which allows people to wear holstered guns at public polling sites.

Michigan’s Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, tried to ban openly carried guns at voting sites this year, to ensure no voter felt scared or intimidated.

But a judge blocked the order and an appeal has been lodged at Michigan’s Supreme Court.

“People have been open-carrying at polling stations for at least 20 years in Michigan,” said Jim Makowksi, a conservative lawyer who opposed the ban.

“It’s a first amendment freedom of expression type of thing. This is how people express their political views.”

Mr Makowski said simply carrying an “inanimate metal object” without threatening behaviour should not be considered intimidating to other voters.

Regardless of the outcome in the courts, several law enforcement agencies in Michigan said they would not be able to enforce a ban based on lack of legal grounding.

“We’re hoping that just because people can they won’t,” said Bob Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We are hoping that people don't bring their guns to the polls, that we don’t have any issues and that the responsible gun owners will realise that it does make people uncomfortable.”

Mr Stevenson said the fact that most polling stations in Michigan were at churches and schools, places that ban people from carrying firearms, would be enough.

But he said law enforcement in the state was prepared to respond to any calls of voter intimidation.

"We're confident we can stop intimidation. We'll be watching for that. We have laws for it and we're confident that we can stop that from happening," Mr Stevenson told The National.

He said there was a heightened awareness around this election and that people could expect to see more police officers at polling stations.

A recent report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project highlighted Michigan as a possible site for election-related violence, with the presence of active militias and far-right groups such as the Proud Boys.

“Traditionally, the police have tried to avoid being at polling locations, because to some people that could actually be considered intimidating,” Mr Stevenson said.

“But I think the population will recognise the reason we’re there is for their protection.”

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