People voting in polling place

Next Tuesday, millions of Americans will head to the polls to exercise their right to vote. Presidential politics aside, there are four states with lifesaving gun safety propositions on the ballot—California, Maine, Nevada, and Washington—but there’s another angle to gun laws that election boards and voters should be paying attention to: are guns allowed in polling places, and if so, how do we keep people safe? And does open-carrying a deadly weapon into a polling place constitute voter intimidation? The answers are very complicated.

Only six states categorically ban guns in polling places—Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Four others—Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, and South Carolina—only ban concealed weapons in polling places, which means voters may carry guns and rifles into the polls so long as they’re visible. With political tensions running hot in certain areas, creating circumstances under which the visible presence of a deadly weapon could be perceived as a grave threat. While many who openly carry guns do so with respect to the law and their fellow citizens, others use the opportunity to intimidate fellow voters and threaten the First Amendment rights of individuals expressing themselves—in this case, at the ballot box.

State legislatures are woefully behind when it comes to protecting Americans from the threat of gun violence while they vote. Many states, like Virginia, have laws banning voter intimidation tactics, but do not specifically discuss the presence of guns as a form this intimidation could take. Election workers are barred from carrying guns, but independent poll observers—volunteers who ensure that ballots are not tampered with—are not explicitly banned from this practice unless they’re in one of the six states that bans guns at the polls. Election boards in Colorado are also preparing their workers for the worst, adding active shooter response exercises to their election judge training.

Some polling places are in schools or on private property. For example, in New Hampshire, an open-carry state, guns are not explicitly banned from school property. Some districts in the state are considering closing school on Election Day out of parental concerns that guns carried into schools by voters may upset or endanger students.

Carrying a deadly weapon in public comes with the inherent responsibility of knowing how guns affect others. Lawmakers should act to precisely define actions that constitute voter intimidation and enact laws that protect the public from menace at the ballot box. Most states do not have policies addressing firearms in polling places, and it’s important for voters to understand how their jurisdiction handles guns on Election Day.