The Prince William County electoral board, wary of the heated atmosphere of the coming Election Day, considered seeking a one-day ban on weapons at polling places located on private property but were rebuked by a gun-friendly state legislator.
Late last week, Del. Robert Marshall, R-Prince William, sent a letter to the board pointing out that it has no power to ban guns from polling places except for schools and courthouses, where weapons are prohibited by state law.
Election officers across the state say they are worried about conflicts at the polls after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump urged his supporters to "watch" othersat the voting booths, while also asserting that the election is "rigged."
"So go to your place and vote, and then go pick some other place, and go sit there with your friends and make sure it's on the up and up," Trump said at a recent rally in Michigan. "Because you know what? That's a big, big problem in this country, and nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody has the guts to talk about it. So go and watch these polling places."
Virginia's election officials have been discussing on their private email list the possibility of intimidation or violence Nov. 8 and talking about what to do about unruly observers.
State law makes it a criminal offense to use a weapon to "intimidate, hinder or interfere" with a voter.
Several officials said that unless someone is causing a disturbance, that person should be left alone. If there's a problem and the gun owner refuses to comply with requests, election officials should call authorities, wrote Russ Boraas, secretary of the Hanover County Electoral Board.
Cameron Sasnett, registrar for Fairfax County, said in an interview that the issue is "on the radar" of his office to ensure voters' security. "We have full faith and trust that [gun owners] will control those weapons in a manner that is consistent with state law . . . We're extremely confident we will have a smooth Election Day in Fairfax County."
Keith Scarborough, the Prince William County's electoral board secretary, said that "many election officers," who are legally barred from carrying weapons, were concerned that heated campaign rhetoric might infect the normally calm civic atmosphere at the polls.
"It's not a majority by any means, but we've had several election officers who said . . . they are worried something is going to happen on Election Day," Scarborough said in an interview Tuesday. "I've even heard some voters say, 'I'm going to vote absentee because I don't want to be in the polling place on Election Day.' "
Seventy of Prince William's 91 polling places are in schools, with the remaining 21 in churches, fire halls and community centers. Firearms are allowed in county government buildings, such as fire stations, libraries and community centers, the county's communications officers said. Private landowners can voluntarily ban weapons from their property.
Scarborough said that the local registrar, Michele White, told the board that her staff doesn't have the resources or authority to ask church-based polling places to ban guns. White did not return several requests for comment.
Scarborough, a Democrat who has held his electoral board position since 2007, said the county has not had any incidents of issues with gun-toting voters or observers at the polls in the past.
In a written response to Marshall, Scarborough said that all voters and electoral officers deserve the same level of protection that they will have at schools and that the board was seeking "a consistent policy" across all the precincts.
He said the board has discussed the matter twice and know it is "completely up to the private facility" to decide whether to bar firearms.
His preference, he said, is that all polling places in Virginia should be gun-free zones on Election Day, and he suggested that Marshall introduce a bill to that effect in the next legislative session.
In an interview, Marshall said he expressed concern on behalf of a constituent who complained to him that voters legally carrying guns would not be allowed into polling places.