Michigan judge sides with open-carry of firearms at polling stations

(Reuters) - A Michigan judge sided with gun-rights advocates on Tuesday in allowing the open carrying of firearms at Election Day polling sites, blocking enforcement of an order by state authorities barring such displays of weapons to prevent voter intimidation.

State Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, vowed to immediately appeal the ruling, saying: “This issue is of significant public interest and importance to our election process.”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, also a Democrat and the state’s top election administrator, issued a directive on Oct. 16 prohibiting the open carrying of guns at polling stations, clerk’s offices and other places where absentee ballots are tabulated.

Nessel and the head of the state police, Colonel Joe Gasper, joined in endorsing the open-carry restriction, announced a week after 13 men were arrested on charges of taking part in a plot by armed extremists to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

At least three of those men were among dozens of armed protesters who thronged the Michigan capitol on April 30 as state lawmakers debated Whitmer’s request to extend her emergency public health authority to order social-distancing rules aimed at controlling the spread of coronavirus infections.

The protests were widely criticized as an attempt by right-wing opponents of Whitmer’s COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to intimidate legislators voting on the issue.

Michigan is an “open-carry” state, meaning a firearm can be generally carried in public by its lawful owner without a permit, although that does not apply to churches, schools, libraries, hospitals and a handful of other public places.

Benson’s order prohibited the open carrying of guns within 100 feet (30 m) of any voting or vote-counting location on Election Day, Nov. 3, a measure she said was “necessary to ensure every voter is protected.”

But Michigan-based gun owners groups challenged her decree as an abuse of authority and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent its enforcement.

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray sided with the gun owners, finding that Benson had failed to abide by the state’s Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in imposing her open-carry ban, and that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on that basis.

The judge added that existing state laws already make it a crime to intimidate voters “with or without a firearm,” and explicitly bar the open carry of weapons in some venues that are used as polling sites, such as places of worship.

Murray also said that with the election just a week away, there was still time, although not a lot, to obtain appellate review of his ruling.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago, Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney