No one in America should ever be threatened with guns while exercising their right to vote. Yet there is currently no federal law prohibiting the presence of firearms at polling places.
Gun violence prevention advocates can and should continue to call on Congress to pass legislation to ensure gun-free polling places. Meanwhile, state and local officials can enact common-sense policies to prevent armed voter intimidation and protect the integrity of our elections.
Armed intimidation at the polls is voter suppression, plain and simple. This undemocratic form of harassment is unlawful and is an affront to our safety as well as the integrity of America's free and fair elections. Voters of all political leanings must condemn these efforts and join gun violence prevention advocates and voting rights advocates in urging local, state, and federal officials to uphold the integrity of our elections and democracy.
What is Voter Intimidation?
Voter intimidation, including armed intimidation, is not only unlawful, but it also fundamentally threatens our constitutional right to freely participate in elections. Under federal law, voter intimidation is defined as the use of threats, coercion, or attempts to intimidate for the purpose of interfering with the right of another person to vote or to vote for the person of their choosing.
Voter intimidation can take on multiple forms, including verbal aggression, disrupting voting lines, or spreading false election-related information about details like voting deadlines and polling hours. It also includes asking voters for “documentation” and challenging a person’s voting eligibility based on race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, or disability as an attempt to disenfranchise them.
Armed intimidation at the polls is voter suppression, plain and simple. Michigan's new ban is a win for our democracy and free and fair elections.— Brady | United Against Gun Violence (@bradybuzz) October 17, 2020
Sign our petition for states to make polling places gun-free zones: https://t.co/B86QbPOFnW #ProtectTheVote https://t.co/GhKSC7hCwv
Learn Your State's Laws Against Armed Voter Intimidation
There is currently no federal law prohibiting the presence of firearms at polling sites. Instead, regulation is left to the states, a large majority of which allow guns to be carried in and around a polling place.
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University has fact sheets for all 50 states on the laws barring unauthorized private militia groups and what to do if groups of armed individuals are near a polling place or voter registration drive. Visit ICAP to learn more and look up state laws.
In the absence of a federal law keeping voters safe while they exercise their democratic right at polling places, states are rising to meet the moment. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting firearms at polling places, and many of these laws have passed in recent years specifically in response to an increase in voter intimidation. Visit this resource compiled by our partners at Giffords to find out if your state protects polling places.
Understanding the Growing Threat of Armed Voter Intimidation
We can take sensible action to guard against threats of armed voter intimidation.
The risk of armed intimidators at the polls is not an abstract concern — it is an unfortunate reality that is being perpetuated by leaders who are emboldening, rather than denouncing this type of behavior, and it must be thoughtfully and firmly addressed immediately to prevent further violence and voter suppression. Especially at a time when America is experiencing political violence, unchecked guns at polling places can have fatal consequences. In recent years, firearms carried by private citizens at protests led to deadly outcomes in Kenosha, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Louisville, and more.
Whether intended or not, the mere presence of guns at or around polling places threatens voters’ emotional and physical well-being — particularly in a nation where 1 in 5 people have been threatened by a gun.KFF
While intimidation at polling places is not a uniquely American problem, the rise in U.S. gun ownership paired with growing ideological divides is aided by self-described “militia” groups across the country. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen heavily armed “militias” brandishing firearms in and around statehouses, opposing public health orders, and threatening those participating in demonstrations against police violence.
These armed individuals pose a palpable threat to our nation’s democracy. On January 6th, 2021, the United States Capitol experienced a shocking attack in which extremists stormed the building and threatened the lives of our national legislators with the express intent of undermining our democracy. In the aftermath of this insurrection, the FBI released a warning that militias were planning armed attacks on all 50 state capitol buildings throughout inauguration week in an attempt to foment violence. The threat of armed violence always existed, but increasingly extremist political rhetoric is pushing individuals to take up arms in our democratic spaces.
We’re seeing the effects of January 6th galvanize individuals across the country. In 2023, a disgruntled citizen illegally brought a handgun into the Wisconsin State Capitol and demanded an audience with the Governor. After his arrest, he posted bail and returned that night with an assault rifle.
These instances of radicalization are neither arbitrary nor a far-off threat; in fact, a 2023 Threat Assessment by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identifying the “most direct, pressing threats to our Homeland during the next year” concluded that “our electoral processes remain an attractive target for many adversaries,” and that there is an expectation that “many of them will seek to influence or interfere with the 2024 election.”
Threats of intimidation at polling places have affected the people helping facilitate our nation’s right to vote; a 2023 Brennan Center poll of election ofﬁcials across the country found that one in three had experienced threats, harassment, or abuse because of their job, and nearly half were concerned about the safety of their colleagues going forward. And we must recognize that false claims about the 2020 election blamed Trump’s loss on cities with large populations of color, such as Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. Many of the related threats targeted election ofﬁcials in those areas and contained racist or antisemitic language.
POTENTIAL ARMED VOTER INTIMIDATION CAUSED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT
Unfortunately, the threat of violence at polling sites does not come from only armed citizens. In recent months, mounting discord between law enforcement and marginalized communities — who are often impacted by voter suppression tactics — has increased. There is a history of over-policing in communities of color, especially Black communities and neighborhoods, and the presence of law enforcement at polling locations could act as a deterrent, especially in the current climate. For example, local law enforcement watched Georgia voters in a predominantly Black neighborhood for over five hours after the polls had closed.
As the Brennan Center for Justice explains, "There is a shameful history in parts of the country of armed officers, on duty or off, targeting Black voters and other voters of color for intimidation. Their mere presence in polling places could raise reasonable fears among groups that are frequently the target of racial profiling and police misconduct. But the law is crystal clear: it is illegal to deploy federal troops or armed federal law enforcement officers to any polling place."
Activists have an opportunity to advocate for polling locations to feel safe for all members of their community. This includes reassessing polling locations within or adjacent to police stations, which may discourage Black and Latinx voters concerned with being stopped and accosted by law enforcement on Election Day.
Even in cases when policing is used as a tool to prevent armed voter intimidation, officials must be mindful of the unintended consequences, particularly for Black Americans and voters of color, of the continual or long-term police presence outside of polling locations. Efforts to protect against voter intimidation in these scenarios may similarly and unintentionally create a different form of intimidation for certain voters. Now more than ever, elected officials must evaluate the usefulness of deploying armed law enforcement at polling locations. Learn more about Brady's vision for comprehensive police reform.
How You Can Take Action
It is necessary that everyone attending polling places for this election — voters, poll workers, and officials alike — are prepared for the possibility of voter intimidation, especially in cases that those engaging in such intimidation are armed.
What State and Local Officials Can Do
Here is how you can advocate for safe, gun-free polling places.
- A report by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) and Guns Down America – “Guns Down At The Polls: How States Can and Should Limit Firearms at Polling Places” – explores numerous examples of gun-based intimidation occurring at polling places in swing states in 2016 and 2018 and identifies tools available to help state and local officials keep voters safe and prevent armed intimidation at the polls.
What Voters and Advocates Can Do
1. SIGN OUR PETITION: Urge your state lawmakers to make all polling places gun-free zones ahead of Election Day!
Voter intimidation is against the law. And armed voter intimidation is not just undemocratic; it's deadly. That's why Brady is demanding that state and local officials work immediately to designate polling places and the area that surrounds them as gun-free zones.
2. USE OUR SAMPLE LETTER: Contact your local officials to urge them to take proactive steps to guard against armed voter intimidation at polling places.
We are encouraging voters and advocates everywhere to ensure that your local officials are aware of your state's voter intimidation laws and are prepared for how to protect voting access this Election Day. Use our letter to send your local officials resources provided by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP). We are urging local officials to 1) implement vital public safety practices to protect voters from armed intimidation, and 2) urge state officials to ban guns at all polling places.
It can be done in three simple steps:
- Copy/paste the Sample Letter below to local officials into an email.
- Find your local official’s email address here by selecting your state and region, then click on “Election Official Contact Details.”
- Hit send!
Sample Letter to Local Officials
Dear [Insert Name],
As your constituent and a supporter of Brady (bradyunited.org), I am deeply concerned that armed citizens and private “militias” may attempt to interfere with the upcoming election and vote count. That is why I am urging you to take proactive steps to prevent armed voter intimidation and ensure voting access in our state.
As I’m sure you are aware, voter intimidation — including armed intimidation — is not only unlawful, but it also fundamentally threatens our shared constitutional right to freely participate in elections. Whether intended or not, the mere presence of guns at or around polling places can intimidate voters from accessing the ballot box and interfere with the orderly counting of mail-in ballots. These threats are unfortunately tangible: Amid political division over past months, firearms carried by private citizens at protests have led to deadly outcomes in Kenosha, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Louisville, and more. And while every state prohibits private, unauthorized militias and military units from engaging in law enforcement activities, there were nationwide reports in years past of voter intimidation at polling stations open for early voting.
In light of these threats, I am writing to urge you to immediately implement vital public safety practices to protect voters and constituents as recommended by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (https://constitutionalprotestguide.org/), or ICAP, at Georgetown University. ICAP has created a toolkit that details the legal principles of voter rights based on specific principles from the Constitution, federal, state, and local laws that allow for safe voting practices. They also have fact sheets for all 50 states (www.bit.ly/icap-state) explaining the laws barring unauthorized private militia groups and what to do if groups of armed individuals are near a polling place or voter registration drive.
I hope that you will use these resources to:
- Ensure appropriate officials are fully informed about the illegality of private militias, how to recognize them, and the possibility of militias’ interfering with the upcoming election
- Ensure appropriate officials are also fully informed about voter intimidation and are prepared to prevent and respond to incidents of voter intimidation
- Inform the public about the illegality of private militias and voter intimidation. Doing so may dissuade people from participating in militias and engaging in voter intimidation. It also could inform people on what actions they can take if they encounter militias and witness voter intimidation.
Please, I’m asking that you use your power, authority, and position to protect our democracy from those aiming to subvert it. Also, while I understand that it is not within your power to enact a ban on firearms at polling places, I hope that you will contact the appropriate state officials to urge them to pass this public safety measure.
No American should have to risk their lives to exercise one of their most basic rights as a citizen — the right to participate freely in our democracy. In closing, I hope you will do everything in your power to ensure appropriate officials are fully informed about the illegality of private militias, how to recognize them, and the possibility of militias’ interfering with the upcoming election. Please visit bradyunited.org/program/democracy/guns-at-polling-places to learn more about how to prevent armed intimidation at polling places.
I am grateful for your concern about gun violence in our city and available to work with you on this important issue. Thank you for your attention to this important issue.
Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection was created by the Georgetown University Law Center to protect America’s Constitution and the rights of all its citizens. On their website, you can download a toolkit that details the legal principles of your voter rights based on specific principles from the Constitution, federal, state, and local laws that allow for safer voting practices. Know your rights before going to the polls to prevent voter intimidation.
Election Protection: 866-OUR-VOTE
Election Protection is a nonpartisan coalition that safeguards voting opportunities for all and ensures every vote counts. In order to help voters and remove barriers to the voting process, Election Protection created a helpline, 866-Our-Vote. Listed below are the phone numbers in English, Spanish, Arabic and Asian languages for your use at the polls if you are to encounter any problems and experience, or witness, voter intimidation.
- English: 866-OUR-VOTE, run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
- Spanish/English: 888-VE-Y-VOTA, run by NALEO Educational Fund
- Arabic/English: 844-YALLA-US, run by the Arab American Institute (AAI)
- Asian Languages/English: 888-API-VOTE, run by APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC)
Brennan Center for Justice
A report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center details state, local, and federal laws and policies on voter intimidation, including in relation to federal troops, off-duty police, and private militia groups.
League of Women Voters of the United States (LWVUS)
Voter Guardians Training Curriculum
The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) builds organizing power to ensure that the values of equity, opportunity, and a dynamic democracy become national priorities. CPD's Voter Guardian program provides virtual trainings on "De-Escalation Tactics, Poll Monitoring, and Knowing Your Rights" for volunteers seeking to protect and ensure voting access. Find events here.
As a way to prevent harassment at the polls, Hollaback — a nonprofit on a mission to end harassment — offers abundant resources on bystander intervention training, conflict de-escalation, responding to/preventing harassment and resilience training.