BEULAH — Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel has no intention of enforcing Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s ban on open carry of firearms within 100 feet of the polls on Election Day.
“It’s illegal,” Schendel said. “She doesn’t have the authority to make laws.”
Schendel said he received a phone call from someone who said they would open carry in defiance of the ban.
“I wish she would have just left it alone because now it’s going to create problems for all of us,” Schendel said. “People are going to press the issue because they know it’s an illegal order.”
Schendel joins several law enforcement officers across the state who say they won’t enforce the ban issued by Benson last week that also covers clerks’ offices and absent voter counting boards. The ban is meant to prevent disruption, intimidation and fear in voters and election workers, who’ve been told to contact law enforcement if the ban is violated or any person is seen intimidating or impeding a voter outside of the 100-foot limit.
The Michigan Sheriff’s Association released a statement earlier this week asking sheriffs in each county to consult their prosecutors on whether to uphold the ban.
Schendel met Friday with the Benzie prosecutor and county clerk to make sure they are all on the same page. Signs telling voters of the ban using language sent out by the state will be posted at all polling stations, he said. But nobody will enforce the ban.
“Obviously, if there is any kind of problem at a polling place we’re going to address it,” Schendel said.
The ban comes in the wake of the arrest of 14 men investigators say targeted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, several law enforcement officials and other politicians. The men, three of whom were charged in Antrim County, are believed to have spent months preparing for an assault on Whitmer’s northern Michigan home.
The director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, which represents 385 police chiefs, warned this week that that officers won’t be able to enforce the ban because it is not based in law.
Traverse City Police Chief Jeffrey O’Brien, who is a member of the association, agrees that the directive holds no authority.
“I don’t see where (Benson) can usurp the Constitution of the United States or the Michigan Constitution to make law,” O’Brien said.
Michigan has no law prohibiting open carry, which makes it an open carry state, O’Brien said.
“It’s an absolute right under the Second Amendment,” he said.
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg is researching the law and if she finds a loophole saying Benson is within her rights in instituting the ban, O’Brien will uphold it.
He is assigning officers to the polls on Election Day just to make sure everyone feels safe. He doesn’t anticipate any problems, though he does expect some will challenge the rule.
“I would anticipate somebody challenging that just on principle,” O’Brien said.
There are several misdemeanor laws in place regarding intimidating voters and causing disruptions at a polling place. Those will be enforced, O’Brien said.
Those working the election are being trained to know the difference between what people can and cannot do at the polls, he said.
Jane Keen has worked elections for 21 years, first as the Leland Township clerk and now as an election inspector. She has always felt safe doing her job and this year is no different.
Keen said she lives in a small community and knows everybody who walks through the door. She doesn’t foresee a problem, but you never know.
“I certainly understand in today’s climate where people might say, ‘You can’t tell me what I can or can’t do,’” Keen said.
If she sees someone open carry she’ll let them vote, despite the ban.
“I wouldn’t take away their right to vote,” Keen said. “If I felt threatened or I felt anyone in our precinct was threatened, then I would call 911.”
Elmwood Township resident Jeff Kessler has been a poll worker for 15 years and has never been afraid and is not now, as he is trusting that people will do the right thing.
“But I bet if someone was waiting in line with an AR-15 around their neck I would be afraid,” Kessler said.
Kessler supports the ban, saying voting is a sacred process and guns at the polls are an unnecessary distraction and disrespectful to workers, voters and the voting process.
“It should be illegal,” he said. “There’s no reason for an open carry weapon in a polling place.”
The ban has been challenged in two lawsuits filed this week by gun rights activists and groups including Michigan Open Carry Inc., Michigan Gun Owners and the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners seeking to stop enforcement of the ban.
The suits were filed in the Michigan Court of Claims and name Benson, Attorney General Dana Nessel, who supports the directive, and Col. Joseph Gasper, Michigan State Police director as defendants. Oral arguments in the case have been scheduled for Tuesday.
Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said he’ll wait until then to determine how his department will handle the ban, which may be struck down.
“What is in place today is probably going to change in some way, shape or form,” Bensley said. “We’ll have to see what the judge says.”
Bensley said the ban is unenforceable because there is no specific law violation.
“If someone is open carrying at a polling site and that’s all they are doing there is no law violation,” he said. “We can only arrest someone if they break the law.”
Benson has said the Michigan State Police will be called upon to enforce the ban around the state.
Lt. Derrick Carroll, MSP spokesperson, said the department is working on a plan for Election Day, but is also waiting to see if the open carry ban will survive the court challenges.
“It is a policy that has been put out,” Carroll said. “We’re law enforcement officers. We’re not politicians or legislators or attorneys.”
MSP officers will respond to calls of harassment, intimidation or disorderly conduct at the polls.
Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said he has lived and voted in many areas and has never seen voter intimidation at the polls. He also has never seen anyone open carry at the polls.
“I hope that all the rhetoric and media coverage does not exacerbate a situation where everybody is already at each other’s throats as far as politics go,” Borkovich said.
Borkovich said this was not an issue until the directive came out from Lansing.
“I don’t want to see people at the polls with firearms, but it is not illegal for them to do so,” Borkovich said.
As to whether he’ll enforce the ban, he said he did not want to release any details on his plan for Election Day.
At the same time he does not want to undercut or erode any orders from the governor, the secretary of state or the state health department, he said.
In April Borkovich and Schendel joined Sheriff Ken Falk of Manistee County and Sheriff Kim Cole of Mason County to oppose some of the restrictions in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, saying they would not strictly enforce them.
Borkovich, Schendel and others are confident that most people are just going to vote and go on with their day.
“I think that everyone will be able to vote,” O’Brien said. “Lets hope a lot of people vote.”