In July 2011, the Indiana state legislature passed a law that allows citizens to openly carry firearms at all polling places except for schools and courthouses. This law has been praised as a protective measure of a citizen’s right to bear arms and exercise self-defense. For many states, this kind of law would present enough difficult policy questions all on its own, but it raises
particularly charged issues for Colorado, a state that has found itself a consistent subject of both the election and gun debates.
Two of the most deadly, high-profile shootings in U.S. history have occurred in Colorado–the Columbine and Aurora shootings, the most recent of which occurred this past summer–and have sparked renewed gun control debates. Even more recently, Colorado’s active Secretary of State, Scott Gessler, was involved in a controversial “voter purge” when his office “sent letters to nearly 4,000 people questioning their citizenship as part of a plan to have them voluntarily withdraw or confirm their eligibility to vote” (Huffington Post). Colorado democrats claimed that Secretary Gessler attempted to intimidate or disenfranchise voters, thousands of whom proved to be state citizens. With recent events concerning both gun control and voter intimidation, should Colorado adopt an Indiana-like law and guarantee citizens the right to openly carry firearms at polling places across the state, overriding any local laws that prohibit the practice?
Currently, Colorado citizens can openly carry firearms, barring state and federal law preemptions. Municipalities may also prohibit the open carrying of a firearm in local government buildings if such a prohibition is clearly posted at public entrances or other areas (C.R.S. 29-11.7-104). Several municipalities have bans against open carrying, including the city of Denver, and citizens may not openly carry firearms into schools, but there are no other statewide statutory limitations on openly carrying firearms at polling places. There is, however, no affirmative statewide grant, either.
The idea of allowing open carrying at polling places raises the competing concerns regarding a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment, and an interest in preventing voter intimidation and disenfranchisement.
While there has not yet been a major, publicized report of voter intimidation with the aid of a firearm in Colorado, the state has served as a battleground between conservative movements and immigrant populations. Colorado is the country’s third fastest-growing state, with its immigrant population growing 34 percent from 2000 to 2010. With such growth, there is widespread concern among conservative voters about non-citizens voting, leading groups like True the Vote, based in Texas, to station poll watchers at polling places in Colorado to make voting “like driving and seeing the police following you.” Secretary Gessler has urged citizens to work with the organization to block the “illegal alien vote.”
Colorado prohibits voter intimation by statute, making it “unlawful for any person directly or indirectly, by himself or by any other person in his behalf, to impede, prevent, or otherwise interfere with the free exercise of the elective franchise of any elector or to compel, induce, or prevail upon any elector either to give or refrain from giving his vote at any election provided by law or to give or refrain from giving his vote for any particular person or measure at any such election” (C.R.S. 1-13-713). The kind of behavior advocated by True the Vote suggests that the group aims to engage in indirect intimidation. Adding a firearm to the situation would undoubtedly increase the likelihood of intimidation, regardless of whether the carrier intended to use the weapon. Potential voters, especially those targeted by such organizations, may feel so intimidated that they refuse to exit their car or, upon hearing about gun-toting poll watchers, may not vote at all.
The Indiana law was “not intended to encourage people to display guns brazenly in public in a way that will intimidate or frighten innocent people” (Journal Gazette), but laws like Indiana’s opens the door to that possibility. To pass a similar law in Colorado would protect a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms, but from a policy perspective it would run the risk of intimidating or, worse, disenfranchising members of the state’s rising immigrant population, who may be too wary of armed poll watchers to show up to vote. While it may pose less of a threat to pass this kind of law in less diverse states, Colorado may want to think twice.