Sheriff Lillywhite: Election Day Gun Directive Unenforceable

St. Joseph County Sheriff Mark Lillywhite told Watershed Voice Wednesday that his department will not be able to enforce a directive issued last Friday prohibiting open carry of firearms within 100 feet of polling places around the state. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued the directive, which applies to the upcoming November 3 General Election day, and includes instructions for local clerks on how to carry it out.

“We will be enforcing all laws and rules that apply to elections,” Lillywhite said. “As of right now, I’m taking direction from the Michigan Sheriff’s Association (MSA) and other sheriffs.” Currently there is no statute in place which would make open carry at polling places illegal, and Lillywhite alleges that fact makes the directive unconstitutional. “We have legislators to make laws, and she can’t just arbitrarily make a law.”

Although Michigan law does broadly allow the Secretary of State to issue directives for the operation of polling places, it does not specifically provide for the regulation of firearms at polling places. However, Benson said she consulted with Attorney General Dana Nessel to confirm legal grounds for the directive, according to coverage by the Detroit Free Press.

Nevertheless, Lillywhite also said the lack of a statutory basis for Benson’s directive also means that there would be no basis to enforce it. “If we don’t have a statute or law to put it under, I can’t just make up something to charge them with,” Lillywhite said. “But, we will be investigating election intimidation, things like that, and will be prepared to handle anything of that nature,” including any kind of criminal activity.

“There are other jurisdictions, like if it’s at a church or something, then those places apply,” Lillywhite said, meaning that if a polling place is set up at a facility that prohibits firearms, then deputies would be prepared to assist those properties with enforcing their own rules. Three Rivers Police Chief Tom Bringman said, “all these different voting locations have different rules.”

All Three Rivers city voting precincts report to the same polling station at Riverside Church, Bringman said. Bringman said he will have police auxiliary personnel stationed at the polls to provide guidance and assistance. Even as the statewide police chiefs’ organization issued guidance on Monday that is similar to the that which Lillywhite mentioned from the MSA, Bringman said he would be obliged to follow Riverside’s own rules.

If Riverside’s rules prohibit firearms or are otherwise consistent with Benson’s directive, Bringman said a firearm ban at the polls will still be enforceable. He said the firearms specialist at the Three Rivers Police Department (TRPD) is investigating what those rules are. Once they are clear, Bringman will direct officers to act accordingly, and will inform the public about the details of TRPD’s plans for election day.

The auxiliaries will be on hand regardless, Bringman said, and he will make appearances himself throughout the day. Generally, Bringman said, “we try to talk to people and get them to do the right thing for the right reasons.” He said he believes Three Rivers residents will be respectful, and also speculated absentee voting will ease pressure at polling stations.

Bringman said it will be his job to ensure voters can use the polls safely on Election Day. Amid an unusual year, he said, “it’s going to be a different experience for all of us,” Bringman said. “All we’re trying to do is, you know, keep everybody safe. One of the rights people have is to vote, and you shouldn’t have to worry about people harassing you.”

According to Monday’s Free Press coverage, Nessel said the Michigan State Police will patrol polling locations if it appears local law enforcement officials do not plan to enforce voter intimidation laws and rules.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.