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Warnings in Michigan, Minnesota over guns at polling places on Election Day

(Reuters) - An election official and civil rights groups in two U.S. states that will play a key role in November’s presidential election gave warnings on Tuesday about the potential for armed civilians at polling places sparking violence or intimidating voters.

Michigan’s top election official said state police will enforce a ban on people openly carrying firearms near polling places on Election Day, Nov. 3.

In Minnesota, civil rights groups sued to block efforts by a private security company to deploy armed polling monitors, labeling the effort voter intimidation.

November’s election, one of the most bitterly contested in living U.S. history, could set the stage for a clash between the robust American traditions of free speech and gun rights, following a series of incidents at this year’s wave of anti-racism protests.

Republican President Donald Trump, who trails in most national polls behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has cast doubt on the election result, calling it “rigged” and warning supporters to watch for fraud. Nonpartisan election experts have dismissed his claims about voter fraud as far-fetched and denounced calls for illegal voter intimidation.

Trump lost Minnesota by fewer than 2 percentage points in 2016 and won Michigan by a fraction of a percentage point.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a directive on Friday banning the open carry of guns within 100 feet of voting centers. Some Republicans and local law enforcement representatives have said it may not be enforcible.

Others have speculated that an attempt to block people from carrying guns to the polls will spur protests by gun rights activists outside of voting centers, raising the specter of election-related violence.

“This is not a ban on firearms. This is an effort to protect our voters from intimidation, threats, and harassment on Election Day itself,” Benson, a Democrat, said on a call with journalists, adding she had the authority to do so based on state and federal law making voter intimidation illegal.

In Minnesota, local affiliates of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and League of Women Voters asked courts to halt recruiting by a Tennessee-based private security company that promised $910 a day to former special operations military personnel who head to Minneapolis during and after the election. They called the effort voter intimidation.

Anthony Caudle, chairman of the security company Atlas Aegis, did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment. His group posted job advertisements to help “protect election polls, local businesses and residences from looting and destruction.”

Reporting by Michael Martina in Wilmington, Delaware, and Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio

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