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How does Virginia handle guns at polling places?

Early voting locations across the country have been the scene of armed poll watchers, prompting concerns about voter intimidation. Here's what voters need to know if they see someone armed outside a polling place.

What happens if you show up to an early voting location, and there's an armed poll watcher there? Guns are prohibited at polling places in Virginia, but that only applies to 40 feet from the front door of the voting location. Outside that 40-foot radius, people have a Second Amendment right to bear arms, unless it's on the property of a school or the local government has prohibited guns from community centers that serve as polling places.

Chris Piper is former elections commissioner in Virginia, and he says voters should avoid escalation.

"The important thing here is to notify the authorities," Piper says. "And it's not recommended — in fact I strongly recommend against — engaging with the individual or individuals with whom the intimidation is occurring."

J. Miles Coleman at the University of Virginia says these kinds of tactics might cause people to wait until Election Day to vote or skip voting altogether.

"There seems to be this sentiment that unless ballots are cast on Election Day, and they're counted by hand they shouldn't count," Coleman says. "And I think a lot of the conspiracy theories that have sort of come out of the 2020 election are informing a lot of these antics we've seen."

Attorney General Merrick Garland says the United States Justice Department "will not permit voters to be intimidated."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.