Armed voter prompts concern and a warning from the prosecutor: Guns aren’t allowed at the polls

During the May 3 primary election, a voter walked into a Randolph polling location with a holstered gun on his belt. 

Nothing happened, and the man cast his vote as usual. But poll workers felt uncomfortable and alerted township trustees and the county Board of Elections leadership, who in turn sought guidance from the county prosecutor to determine if weapons were allowed at voting locations.

The answer, in short, is no.

Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci told The Portager on Thursday that guns are simply not permitted in publicly owned buildings so long as those buildings are not used primarily for shelter, restrooms or parking vehicles.

“Most polling places are already prohibited places, especially in Ohio, where we use churches, schools, courthouses and government buildings, so the answer is easy: You cannot have a gun,” he said. “Churches are part of the prohibited premises under the statute [Ohio Revised Code 2923.126]. The church could allow it, but they’d have to take action to allow it.”

Proper signage must be posted at each building, Vigluicci said. Ohio law provides the precise language: “Unless otherwise authorized by law, pursuant to the Ohio Revised Code, no person shall knowingly possess, have under the person’s control, convey, or attempt to convey a deadly weapon or dangerous ordnance onto these premises.”

Anyone bringing a weapon into a polling location at a school or courthouse could be charged with a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. Or if the incident occurs in a university, church or government building, it may be a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine, the prosecutor said. The weapon or weapons would be forfeited or seized.

Vigluicci advised poll workers to call the county sheriff’s office or local police if they notice a person with a gun at any polling location.

“We certainly don’t want them to try to enforce the law,” he said.

The question sparked concern at a recent Randolph Township trustees meeting, when a resident raised the issue. (The meeting was covered by a Portager Documenter.) Trustees debated whether to 

“I don’t want guns in public places. I don’t want it. End of discussion,” Trustee Susan White said. “And when I say guns, I mean all guns. I don’t think we should bring a gun to the playground. I don’t think we should bring a gun to the voting.”

Ohio law would prevent the trustees from banning guns on all public property, such as playgrounds, Vigluicci said.

“It’s hard enough to get people [to be poll workers]. We don’t need to scare them,” White added.

Trustee John Lampe, who described himself as an avid defender of the Second Amendment, wanted to seek legal guidance before issuing bans.

“I’m not going to rush to judgment here and put signs up that’s going to violate somebody’s constitutional right,” he said. “I’m not sure what the person who was open carrying was trying to prove, but it is a constitutional right, just like it is a constitutional right to vote.”

He acknowledged, “But I don’t want it affecting our people who are there handling that to feel uncomfortable or unsafe because that’s not fair to them.”

Randolph’s polling locations are the Randolph Senior Center and the connected Randolph Community Center. Both are owned by the township trustees, so both are public buildings, making it a crime to enter with a firearm.

For polling locations in a privately owned building such as an Elks Club, proper signage prohibiting guns could be posted, Vigluicci said. That would affect precincts in Ravenna and Ravenna Township, Kent, Aurora and Streetsboro.

Lampe said the trustees could post signs about the prohibition on firearms at polling locations “just so they’re aware of it.” But even so, he said, “the nutjob who’s going to cause harm is going to ignore those signs anyway. All we’re doing is weakening the people who are trying to defend themselves against a nutjob.”

The Portage County Board of Elections trains poll workers but does not address how to handle voters with guns, Board of Elections Deputy Director Theresa Nielsen said.

Security officers are not posted at polling locations, but the BOE hires “rovers” who stop in at polling sites throughout the county, she said. If there is a security issue, poll workers are instructed to contact the rovers and police.

Rovers are tasked with troubleshooting problems with election machinery, addressing issues such as candidates or their representatives campaigning too close to a polling location, or addressing matters affecting specific voters, she said. They are not trained to deal with armed voters.

“We assume that anyone that’s going to come into our polling locations is going to follow the law,” Nielsen said.

BOE officials are discussing recent changes in Ohio gun laws with the prosecutor’s office, focusing on how those changes may relate to voters who wish to bring their guns into polling locations.

“We do not plan to train our poll workers how to deal with somebody who is violating the law,” she said. “That’s not their job unless it’s an election law. If they have any questions or problems, they should call our office. We are not going to put our poll workers into harm’s way.”

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.