OLYMPIA — As passions surged and rhetoric hardened in the 2020 presidential election, a private citizen approached Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell and offered security services to deter anyone who might cause a disruption at a voting center.
The citizen didn’t say they would be armed. But it was implied.
“I had to dissuade them,” Fell recalled.
Still, election workers and some voters shared with him their uneasiness of carrying out the process of tallying ballots in the open, for all to see, in such an intense environment.
And events this year — like an insurrection at the nation’s Capitol and rowdiness at local school board meetings — crystallized Fell’s desire to find a way to quell their concerns and boost their comfort.
A conversation with Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, resulted in her drafting a bill to keep guns out of places where ballots are cast and counted. The legislation will be considered in the 2022 session that starts next month.
As written, House Bill 1618 would ban firearms and other dangerous weapons from election offices, ballot counting facilities, voting centers and student engagement hubs. Law enforcement officers would be exempt. Private security personnel hired by a county would be, too, if they’ve completed firearm training.
“There are already places in our society where we, based on the potential for intensely emotional situations, do not allow weapons,” Fell said. “Elections and political perspectives can stir equally intense emotions. This proposed bill is a reasonable step to help ensure official election facilities are safe spaces for voters and election workers.”
In Washington, people can watch from designated areas as workers open ballot envelopes, check signatures and carry out other steps of the process. And when recounts are done, they can get even closer to observe as individual ballots are reviewed.
Last year, a Snohomish County Republican leader sought a limited recount of ballots in Berg’s 44th Legislative District and she said it got tense.
“(Workers) are sitting ducks,” Berg said. “They are sitting there, carrying out an important chore of our democracy and if someone was there with a long gun, it would be intimidating. To me there was a sense of urgency of keeping our election workers safe.”
Washington is an open-carry state, meaning a person can openly carry a firearm in many public areas without a permit. They can carry a concealed weapon with a license.
There are public venues where open-carry has long been barred, such as courtrooms, jails, schools, airports and mental health facilities. In recent years, guns have been prohibited from legislative hearing rooms and the galleries of the state House and Senate.
Then last session, the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law banning guns and other weapons from the campus of the state Capitol, including offices of lawmakers.
The law also bars open-carry within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration — defined as a gathering of 15 or more people at a single event. Supporters of the law argued the presence of openly armed people at demonstrations is intimidating and heightens tensions, potentially leading to violence.
There have been no specific threats in Snohomish County. Nor has anyone been asked to leave because they had a weapon, Fell said.
“There is a different level of concern and fear,” he said. “People have always been passionate about their candidate and election results. I think the concern is that there doesn’t seem to be the same limitations on where that concern takes people.”
Berg and Fell said enforcement will mostly be educating people to not bring guns with them.
“Are we going to put people through metal detectors? No,” Berg said. “Our intent is to say you cannot bring weapons to this process. I’m confident people will leave their weapons at home, safely stored.”
Her bill is one of two intended to further restrict where people can open-carry.
Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, has pre-filed House Bill 1630 to bar weapons from public meetings of school boards, city councils and county councils. Berg is co-sponsoring the legislation.
Their two bills are part of a package of legislation the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility will be pushing to pass in the 2022 session.
The alliance will try again to pass a bill to bar the sale of magazines that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition and will also look for new limits on the making and selling of homemade guns.