The next time you vote in a Kansas election, the person next to you at the polling place may be packing a pistol.
It depends on how state Attorney General Derek Schmidt rules on a request for a legal opinion that has been filed by the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Kobach has asked Schmidt to rule on whether a new state law allowing concealed carry in most public buildings applies to polling places on Election Day.
Throughout the state, polling sites are often situated in places where guns are not usually allowed, such as churches, schools, universities and charity organizations.
“We’ve invited the attorney general to weigh in before we issue any guidance to the counties,” Kobach said.
As a general rule, guns have been prohibited from polling places to prevent voter intimidation or interference with elections, Kobach said.
He said now there’s “some ambiguity in the law” over whether Kansas polling places – rented or borrowed by counties just for election days – would be considered “leased” property under the concealed-carry law.
If they are, the law mandates that licensed gun owners must be allowed to carry their weapons on the premises, unless the county files a detailed security plan for each site and provides protective measures such as metal detectors and guards to run them.
Brad Bryant, elections director in the Secretary of State’s Office, said it would be impractical to try to provide that level of security.
“Counties aren’t going to buy all that equipment to use for one day,” he said.
Bryant updated election commissioners and county clerks from throughout the state on the issue during a Kansas Association of Counties convention in Wichita last week.
“Our understanding right now is that a building, a facility, that is owned or leased by a municipality, including for a polling place, would be subject to the (concealed carry) law,” he said. “When you lease a private property, it becomes a municipal property on Election Day, that’s our understanding.”
Bryant said the request for an attorney general’s opinion has a series of detailed questions about the legal status of properties used for polling places and if it matters whether the county pays to use the site or gets it for free.
He said the office is also asking whether it makes any difference if there’s a written contract or just a verbal agreement allowing use of the property.
Public officials usually request an attorney general’s opinion on legal questions that have not been decided by a court. The opinions don’t carry the force of law but can be used as guidance by agencies until an issue is tested.
Weapons in polling places has been an issue that has flared periodically in other states. Nationally, there have been numerous charges of voter intimidation from both sides of the political spectrum because of advocates stationing themselves at and around polling places carrying weapons and/or wearing security uniforms.
Kobach said if someone displays or brandishes a weapon at a Kansas polling site, they could be prosecuted under other laws banning voter intimidation.
Two state legislators who attended Bryant’s speech said the idea of guns at the polls is unsettling, even if they aren’t openly displayed.
“That’s scary,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, the ranking minority member on the Senate elections committee. “We really are going back to the Wild Wild West.”
Rep. Tom Sawyer of Wichita, ranking Democrat on the House elections committee, said he foresees difficulties in finding adequate polling sites if weapons have to be allowed.
He predicted some churches and nonprofit groups that open their property for voting sites in Sedgwick County may have second thoughts if they have to allow guns in their buildings.
“It’s hard enough as it is to come up with a building that’s going to be open all day and that’s handicapped-accessible,” he said.
Sedgwick County doesn’t use school buildings for polling places, although many counties in Kansas do. Most local polling stations are in churches – and they appear to be split on the question of guns in their buildings.
If the ruling is that guns have to be allowed, Grace Presbyterian Church would have to talk about it in a meeting of the Session, the church’s governing body, said Martin Burch, executive pastor.
The church serves as a polling place for the Crown Heights area of east Wichita.
“We wouldn’t just automatically continue,” Burch said. “I don’t know how that decision would go.”
First Mennonite Brethren Church, which serves as a polling place in northwest Wichita, probably wouldn’t have a problem with concealed carry on Election Day, said executive pastor John Oelze.
“We’d still welcome the polling place either way, I’m sure,” he said.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, a leading local proponent of gun rights, said he doesn’t think concealed-carry permit holders would cause problems at the polls.
But he said he’d be uncomfortable forcing private institutions whose property is occasionally used for a public purpose to accept guns in their buildings if they don’t want them there.
“I’m not sure that the law would apply to those,” he said.
The law is intended for “when we lease buildings and put people in them for a long time,” he said.
He said he hopes the concealed-carry law can be clarified with regard to polling sites before the 2014 elections in August and November.
“Obviously in general I support the law,” he said. But, he added, the polling-place issue “is something that is going to have to be sorted out at the state level.”