Michigan

Michigan’s ‘constitutional sheriffs’ vow to keep voters safe at polls

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Election and government security officials are worried about possible violence by antigovernment groups at polling places in Michigan and across the country. Michigan members of the ‘constitutional sheriffs’ movement say they intend to ensure safety at polling stations in their rural counties. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

By Ted Roelofs, Bridge Magazine

October 14, 2020. MI.-Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich counts himself among a handful of Michigan’s “constitutional sheriffs.”

In Borkovich’s mind, that means he’s the final authority on law enforcement issues to the people of Leelanau, not Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Conservative sheriffs of similar views — most prominently, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf —   have refused to enforce the governor’s COVID-19 executive orders in the spring, well before the state’s Supreme Court ruled she overstepped her authority.  

But Borkovich and other so-called constitutional sheriffs in Michigan insist their provocative views on government overreach do not mean they will allow voters in their counties to be threatened at the polls by antigovernment activists.  

Come Nov. 3, Borkovich told Bridge Michigan, he intends to ensure a peaceful vote in his rural county near Traverse City ─ regardless of who might start trouble.

“I don’t like hypotheticals,” he said. “But if a guy with a Trump sign showed up with a butcher knife and started swinging it at people, would we enforce that? Yes.” “If anybody is out of line, we would send our personnel.”

This is an election season like no other, with law enforcement and government security officials worried that militia or anti-government groups might resort to violence or intimidation to scare voters. 

Nationally, President Trump drew criticism at the first presidential debate by appearing to welcome the help of the violence-prone Proud Boys and calling on followers to “go to the polls and watch very carefully.” Federal law enforcement authorities say they are preparing for any potential Election Day violence

Closer to home, 13 men now face state and federal terrorism and conspiracy charges for an alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer, take hostages at the state Capitol and visit violence on any police officers who got in their way.    

Which is why Sheriff Leaf took heat this week when he appeared to defend the alleged actions of militia and antigovernment activists charged in the scheme. 

“It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap’ and you got to remember that,” he told WXMI-TV in Grand Rapids. “Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested.”

In May, Leaf stood on stage at a Grand Rapids protest of Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders with members of a Michigan militia group, including at least one person later arrested in the kidnapping plot. He compared the governor’s COVID orders to illegal mass arrests. 

“What’s the definition of an arrest? It’s basically taking away your free will, your right to move about,” Leaf said at the time.

Leaf’s remarks on the kidnapping allegations were condemned as dangerous by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association and even by the Barry County prosecutor.   

Bridge reached out to Leaf for comment but did not hear back. 

Asked about Leaf’s comments, Borkovich of Leelanau County said: “I will not be commenting on what other people have said or are saying, but instead I am trying to focus my efforts on working with people who need to learn to get along with each other better without violence or the threat of violence.”

He’d like to see a repeat of the 2016 presidential Election Day in his county, when he said his department got just one call about a polling place disturbance.

“They said two people were arguing. We sent a squad car there and by the time we got there, they were gone,” he said.

Immediately south of Leelanau, Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel also brands himself a “constitutional sheriff.”

“It just means that we follow the Constitution,” Schendel told Bridge. “We’re not going to do anything different on a daily basis, which is to enforce the laws of Michigan.

“People think it’s a white supremacist group. People have got the wrong idea. That’s all nonsense.”

In April, Schendel joined Borkovich and two other sheriffs in the northern Lower Peninsula in a letter that stated Whitmer is “overstepping her executive authority” in limiting the size of gatherings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The sheriffs indicated they would selectively enforce her orders, with some refusing to impose fines against people who violated the governor’s orders.  

“Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, and to ensure that your God-given rights are not violated. We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties,” the letter stated.

Like Borkovich, Schendel said he anticipates a calm Election Day in his part of the state. 

“In northern Michigan, nothing ever happens,” he said of election violence. 

“The way we look at it, people have the right to vote and vote without interference.”

If individuals showed up outside polling places with guns?

“We would follow the law. As long as they are peaceful and not violent and trying to intimidate people, we would make sure they respect that limit. Everyone has the right to peaceable assembly.”

Michigan is among many states that have no law banning guns at polling places.

Traditionally weapons-free zones such as schools are commonly used as polling places. Concealed weapons are not allowed. But people with a concealed pistol license can openly carry firearms at those sites if the school has no prohibition against doing so. 

On Oct. 5, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said the state won’t tolerate intimidation at the polls.

“If a line is crossed and anyone becomes disruptive, or in any other ways tries to intimidate citizens from casting their vote … myself and the attorney general and local law enforcement across the state will be prepared to step in and protect voters,” Benson said.

Benson and Nessel say they will soon issue guidelines for state law enforcement on how to handle guns at polling places.

Some sheriffs in southeast Michigan also resisted enforcement of Whitmer’s coronavirus executive orders.

In Livingston County, Sheriff Mike Murphy in May said his office has “basically decided to not do any enforcement” of the stay-at-home order, even as a local gym opened in defiance of Whitmer’s orders.

And Shiawassee County Sheriff Brian BeGole on May 11 said his  office “cannot and will not divert our primary resources and efforts toward enforcement of Governor Whitmer’s executive orders.”

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association (CSPOA), a loosely knit network of constitutional sheriffs, was founded by an Arizona sheriff named Richard Mack. Mack challenged the federal Brady Bill, which required state and local law enforcement to conduct criminal background checks on people who wanted to buy a gun. That resulted in a 1997 Supreme Court decision that ruled that provisions of that gun control measure were unconstitutional.

On its website, the CSPOA traces the authority of the sheriff to ninth century England, while stating: “The vertical separation of powers in the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President.” 

But others see links to fringe movements such as Posse Comitatus, the far-right populist movement, which in turn influenced the private militia groups that began to spring up in the 1990s, most notably in Michigan. CSPOA has supported sheriffs who have, for instance, refused to enforce gun laws that they contend violate the Second Amendment. 

According to its website, a sheriff has ”Constitutional authority to check and balance all levels of government within the jurisdiction of the County.”

Schendel, of Benzie County, does not see a conflict in refusing to enforce laws that he determines violate the constitution and enforcing election laws that allow voters to feel safe at the polls.  

“But honestly, I am not expecting any issues,” he said. “People Up North don’t overstep their bounds. They respect one another.”

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