The editorial "New Laws, Assault on Freedom?" in the July 4-10 edition of the Reston Connection raises a serious concern for public safety in this election year. I have served as an election officer at my precinct for a decade without incident. Like many thousands of volunteers, I have been to numerous training sessions in which the Election Board officers advise us of new requirements and give practical instruction in the use of voting machines. I have worked with an excellent team of volunteers for many years and we enjoy helping registered voters exercise their right at the ballot box. Generally, voting takes place without problems. Occasionally someone comes to the wrong polling station or has forgotten a valid form of identification. Very rarely have we had a problem with an obstinate person who refuses to cooperate when there is a question of his/her right to vote. We generally put in 15-hour days, starting with setting up the polling station at 5 a.m. and opening at 6 a.m. After the station closes at 7 p.m. we usually have another two hours to tally records from the voting machines and fill out many different forms to be taken to the county Board of Elections. So, we have our hands full throughout the day, especially in presidential elections with high voter turnout. We don’t want to worry about our personal safety or that of other voters.
With the Virginia legislature’s passage of several new provisions regarding the unlimited purchase, ownership, and concealed carrying of fire arms, the question of voter and election officer safety cannot be ignored. While it is currently illegal to carry firearms into a polling station, there is no provision to check whether a person might inadvertently or intentionally bring a concealed firearm to a polling station. There are generally no police officers in or near polling stations and, therefore, no way to screen for any potential gun-carrying individuals.
With each election I have worried about the possibility of someone walking into a polling station and shooting people randomly as happened at Virginia Tech in April 2007. So far this has not happened. Still, given the new laws lifting the limit on gun purchases and the legitimacy of using a concealed weapons permit as voter identification, we volunteer election officials should be more concerned about the possibility of a voter carrying a concealed firearm. The question is this: might a person with a legal concealed weapons permit think that he/she is now legally allowed to carry a concealed firearm wherever he/she goes, so long as he/she can show the permit? It would behoove the Virginia Board of Elections to conduct a statewide public awareness and information campaign in community newspapers, on TV, and in radio prior to the upcoming November election that would inform all voters of the prohibition of carrying any firearms into a polling station. While many may think this is obvious, there may be some voters who might not be so informed, and election officers would have no idea whether a voter might be armed or not.
A question for the Election Board: Are election officers permitted to ask a voter who produces a concealed weapons permit as voter identification whether the person is carrying a concealed firearm? If so, what action could an election officer take to assure that public safety and voter integrity is not violated? Since the November election is a Federal election as well as a state election, a person carrying a concealed weapon would be in violation of Federal law. Would that person be in violation of any Virginia law? And if the person were carrying a firearm and had a valid permit, could the election officer request that the person leave the polling station and remove the firearm before being allowed to vote? Should the election officer call the police?
These are questions that deserve serious consideration and responses by county and state election and public safety officials. We want our voters to be safe and at ease when they cast their ballots.
Bruce K. Byers