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

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)

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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Comments

middle of the mit
Wed, 10/14/2020 - 11:12pm

<<<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.

“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.>>>

Who is a check on YOUR authority? Where is the balance?

<<<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.” >>>

Question! How can you call yourselves constitutional Sheriffs, if you think your power is derived from England? Are you Torries? LOL!!!

Then you should move back to the country from which your power resides. Otherwise it would be like a Sheriff from another county policing your county. They have NO jurisdiction to do so!

<<<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>>>

Posse Comitatus Act
The Posse Comitatus Act is a United States federal law signed on June 18, 1878, by President Rutherford B. Hayes, the purpose of which continues to limit the powers of the federal government in the use of federal military personnel to enforce domestic policies within the United States.Wikipedia

I may be wrong, but I don't see anything in there about limiting the one thing CONS love.

What's that? STATES RIGHTS.

But I DO see where it is SUPPOSED to stop President Trump from mobilizing Federal troop to be put into States to deal with domestic problems. Do these people condemn the President for doing so?

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

And these Sheriffs still haven't told us WHO is a check on their power. The voters you say? Couldn't you say the same about the Governor?

It's time you let you go of the power trip too.

middle of the mit
Thu, 10/15/2020 - 9:39pm

https://politicalwire.com/2020/10/15/trump-says-marshals-shot-man-rather...

https://twitter.com/Acyn/status/1316801262277455872

President claimed U.S. Marshals carried out extrajudicial assassination of a man who allegedly shot a pro-Trump protestor.

Said Trump: “We sent in the US Marshals, took 15 minutes and it was over… They knew who he was, they didn’t want to arrest him and 15 minutes that ended.”
___________________________________
Due process?

I'll just .........leave that ...right ....here.....maybe?

Jimmy
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 9:30am

Good post. The police, including "anti-government" police, believe they are the check on the vigilantes and our elected officials. So in effect we have vigilantes as the check on the vigilantes. Sounds like anarchy to me, but hey, some radicals like that concept. Sounds like the crazies running the crazy-house.

Cathy
Thu, 10/15/2020 - 7:41am

Anyone that has to stand in line to vote, remember this when you vote. The GOP's tactic's of voter suppression are at work.

Hun? WTH?
Thu, 10/15/2020 - 10:13am

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.”

They didn't even have a "president" in ninth century England. You mean sheriffs were more powerful than the king? That's laughable.

Besides we are not England. We have a government of checks and balances at all levels of government between an executive, legislature, and judiciary. The police powers are always under the executive/administrative/commission branch. These sheriffs are not judge, jury, and executioner. They're clearly the power hungry ones thinking they have more authority than the duly elected governor or president.

On a side note, I find it funny how these constitutional "purists" scoff at precedential law a concept that comes from England and has been part of our judicial system since our country's founding. Now we see Barrett and others of her ilk clearly dismissive of precedent when the don't like the ruling, only they cloak their disdain with claims of unconstitutionality.

water2Wine
Thu, 10/15/2020 - 11:48am

Just what we need, more guns held by more people that have their own interpretations of the Constitution. No thanks. This is how it works. Believe me. No guns at the polls means there will be no one shooting guns at the polls.

Stop the Madness
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 9:24am

Agreed, but to go further, who wants to be around a group like the people who stormed the capitol with AK47s, some of whom were plotting an overthrow of the government and domestic terrorism, not to mention the huge increase in possible accidental discharges?

Blessed
Mon, 10/19/2020 - 9:35am

One more reason to vote NOW. Avoid the drama, the lines, the bad weather, and Covid19, getting it/spreading it. Use the official drop off box, track your ballot online to make sure it was received.

Charlie Day
Fri, 10/23/2020 - 9:44pm

"In Borkovich’s mind, that means he’s the final authority on law enforcement issues to the people of Leelanau, not Gov. Gretchen Whitmer."
Bridge - That's not in his mind - That is the Law.

A bunch of craaaaaazy people people commenting here here (like middle of the mit) seem to think that means that the Sheriff also MAKES the laws - Which is simply not true!

So all of you nail-biters freaking out about nothing, time for you to chill out and go back to grade school. The Sheriff is the highest ranking LAW ENFORCEMENT authority in your county, and has the final say on LAW ENFORCEMENT, he does not make any laws! Sheeeeesh!