DETROIT (WXYZ) — With just two weeks until Election Day, concerns over potential voter intimidation at polling places has led to dozens of Detroit clergy members taking action.
Rev. Dr. James C. Perkins, the pastor at Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit, is one of the local faith leaders involved in an effort to ease tensions at polling places, should they arise. He's working with the national group Lawyers & Collars; an organization he first collaborated with in 2016.
Greater Christ Baptist Church, on Iroquois, has been a polling place location for years, and will be again on Nov. 3. Dr. Perkins said voter intimidation became an area of concern for him during the last General Election.
"But the atmosphere was not as intense as it is now," he told Action News.
The approach is simple; Perkins and the other clergy members participating will be present at polling places, along with attorneys.
“Hopefully the collar will make a difference to people who may have other motives and intents," he said. Thankfully, Perkins said he didn't witness any instances of voter intimidation in 2016. He said armed protests in Lansing this summer, and the recent threats made against Gov. Whitmer have added to his concern about Election Day safety.
This comes as Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recently announced guidance on open carrying firearms on Election Day. Per a release on Friday, "In furtherance of her role as Michigan’s Chief Elections Officer, with supervisory control over local election officials in the performance of their duties, the Secretary directed, “[t]he open carry of a firearm is prohibited in a polling place, in any hallway used by voters to enter or exit, or within 100 feet of any entrance to a building in which a polling place is located.”
“Many of the polling places you know are gun free zones anyway. They’re in churches, they’re in schools," said retired election law attorney and law professor, John Pirich.
However, many polling places are also in city halls or government buildings, which Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said could cause confusion.
“Clearly as we’ve seen at the Capitol, you can open carry on governmental property. So now you have a clash between the Secretary of State’s order and what traditionally open carry people have been able to do," Stevenson told Action News.
Pirich noted that this guidance isn't technically new, as there's always been a rule about certain conduct within 100 feet of a polling place.
“Inside the 100 foot, it’s for all activity. So all political activity and I think this fits within the ambit of that prohibition, which has been longstanding in Michigan jurisprudence," he said.
Poll watching is legal, it's only when it disrupts the process or intimidates a voter that it becomes a problem, Pirich explained.
Stevenson said open carrying has never been an issue on Election Day. He's hoping for some further clarification on open carrying from the Michigan Department of State before Nov. 3.
“We’re hearing from police chiefs around the state now that they’re getting calls from local open carry advocates asking them are they going to abide by that," he said.