Gun-toting voters? Erie Co. officials clarify open carry rules at the polls

The Erie, Pa. skyline (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. — With open carry organizations threatening to “monitor” the polls on Election Day, county officials here are moving to make sure polling goes as smoothly as possible in the swing county.

The Erie County Election Board passed two resolutions to that end last week. The first restricts two or more individuals carrying weapons from gathering outside of polling places. The second restricts the distance an armed individual, who is not voting, can come near the polls. 

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It’s legal under state law for voters to carry arms to the polls. The resolutions passed by the election board last week increased the distance from the previous 10 feet to 100 feet away from the polls. 

“If someone fails to follow the guidelines, law enforcement will be called; as the presence of those weapons is considered to be intimidating,” County Clerk Douglas Smith said.

In a news conference last week, Erie County Sheriff John Loomis, whom the election board has designated as the head of operations for law enforcement activity on Election Day, said that “A lot of what situation we may run into [on election day] is going to be a big factor in the result.” 

Loomis said the main focus of his law enforcement teams will be targeted at the Erie County Courthouse. They will work with Erie 911, as well as other agencies throughout the county. He said that these agencies have been informed that there are extra deputies on hand to resolve any issues. 

“There will be a lot of security around the county to ensure that voters get to the polls and get home,” Loomis said. 

Mary McCord of the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, wrote a letter to Erie County election officials after the Washington Post reported on Open Carry Pennsylvania, an open carry group that was quoted saying that members would be monitoring the polls across Erie County on Nov. 3. 

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““We wanted to make sure that officials were aware of the law so that they would understand that private individuals have no authority under the U.S. Constitution or other federal or state law to arm themselves as a group and engage in the usurpation of functions reserved to law enforcement and the state militia,” she said. 

The longevity of the resolution might be temporary however, if groups choose to take the county to court. 

In an interview with The Morning Call of Allentown, Duquesne University law school professor Bruce Ledewitz, a Capital-Star opinion contributor, said that most local authorities can’t pass resolutions that contradict state laws. 

County Solicitor Thomas Talarico says, “Bring it on.” 

Despite the ruling Erie County Republicans and Democrats say that at the end of the day making sure all voters are able to exercise their First Amendment rights on Tuesday. 

In a joint letter, the heads of the Erie County Democratic and Republican committees appealed for calm. 

“As we enter the final days of a spirited campaign, the Chairman of the Erie County Democratic and Republican Parties affirms our commitment to the democratic process and the officials who oversee that process in Erie County,” Democratic Chairman Jim Wertz and Republican Chairman Verel Salmon wrote. 

Correspondent Shayma Musa covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @Musa_Shayma.