While some voters don’t think twice about the apparel they wear to the polls on Election Day, others are very deliberate in their choice of clothing. That “Make America Great Again” hat or “#ImWithHer” t-shirt might seem like nothing more than a way to show your support for a particular candidate, but there are rules about what can be worn to the polls, and how close you can get to the polls while sporting such items.
Get in the zone
The Supreme Court has approved a 100-foot campaign-free zone around polling places, and this means your passive political speech—campaign hats, shirts, and buttons—can be banned. So what happens if you show up in a “Vote Trump” shirt? Will your right to vote be denied? Can you wear a shirt that says “Nasty Woman” that does not otherwise proclaim any overt campaign info on it?
“We are really talking about a state issue regarding registration and polling,” says Cameron H. Tousi, managing partner of IP Law Lawyers in Washington, D.C. He references the 1992 Supreme Court case, Burson v. Freeman, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a “campaign-free zone” does not violate the right to free speech. The Court held that states have a compelling interest in preventing voters from being intimidated and can, therefore, can set up a “restricted zone” around polling places. Beyond preventing voter intimidation, these campaign-free zones also serve to maintain an orderly and peaceful voting environment—an especially important goal during this tumultuous election.
While the ruling was not specifically about campaign clothing and accessories, it can, nonetheless, be interpreted and applied as such. Some states are of the opinion that wearing an obvious campaign pin or shirt is not enough of a reason to refuse a person the right to vote. Other states and counties plan to offer shirts or jackets that allow people to cover up their slogans.
Laws in action
Robert S. Herbst, a New York attorney and an Inspector of Elections, makes an important distinction regarding election laws and the voter’s rights. “The election laws do not take precedence over a person’s right to vote, they govern how the person exercises the right,” he says “For example, while a citizen may have a right to vote, they cannot vote if they are not registered or if they show up at the polls a minute after they close.” The same goes for sporting clothes or accessories that blatantly trumpet your political allegiances.
“‘Make America Great Again’ would not be allowed as it is a clearly identifiable slogan,” says Herbst. “‘Nasty Woman’ might be allowed as it is not truly tied just to Hillary. If someone is wearing noncompliant clothing, they would be asked to leave and not allowed to vote until they came back wearing something that is compliant.”
But, Herbst adds, “As a practical matter, it would be up to the busy [election] inspector whether to ask the person to leave or to cover up. If the person refuses [and is barred from voting], it would be his or her right to obtain judicial relief, but that might not occur on the same day,” says Herbst. And that would mean missing out on the opportunity to cast their ballot. “It would be easier for the person to change or cover up. Most likely, in the press of things, no one would even notice,” says Herbst.
Should you risk it?
So will you proudly don that article emblazoned with your political beliefs and march on over to your local polling place, hoping you’ll be waved through without a second look? Or do you err on the side of caution and ensure your right to vote in a very important election, no matter which candidate you wholeheartedly support?
Ultimately, blatant campaign gear worn to the polls is an exercise in distraction and, potentially, harassment. Yes, freedom of speech is one thing, but local election laws take precedence when it comes to polling locations—and who is or is not permitted onto the premises.
True, some people may go to the polls wearing their favorite political t-shirt, not in an effort to harass or influence other voters, but merely as a sign of their own patriotism, support for a particular candidate, or pride in having the right to vote. They may not even be aware of the rules regarding campaign attire. Still, they risk their right to vote—or to avoid the public humiliation of having to turn their shirt inside out.
Image courtesy of the Boston Globe