on november 4, what you wear may be held against you

I’d heard it said that in Michigan that you can’t approach a polling place if you’re wearing any kind of recognizable campaign paraphernalia. I guess the fear is that you could walk into a polling place with such an incredibly persuasive t-shirt or hypnotic lapel pin that you could sway people to change their votes and thereby change the results of the election, and the whole course of human history. Anyway, I’d heard it said that this was the case, so I looked it up. And guess what? It’s apparently true. Here’s a clip from a very hard to find page on the Michigan Secretary of State’s website:

…Election workers have the right to ask voters entering the polls to remove campaign buttons or to cover up clothing bearing a campaign slogan or a candidate’s name. In addition, voters may be told to conceal campaign literature or other campaign materials brought into the polls. While there is nothing to prohibit a voter from referring to campaign literature or “slate cards” when voting, such materials may not be left behind in the voting station. Precinct inspectors should periodically check each voting station for campaign literature left by voters and discard any that is found…

Apparently it’s not just true in Michigan either. There are a number of states where voters are not allowed to wear campaign gear into the polling place. In Michigan, the law is 100 feet. You’re allowed to wear sweatshirts emblazoned with “Palin,” but only if you’re at least 100 feet from the entrance to your polling place. According to the Michigan ACLU, if you stand closer than 100 feet, there’s a distinct possibility that you will be charged with a misdemeanor. Here’s what the ACLU says:

…You cannot lose your right to vote if you wear a t-shirt, hat, button or other garb endorsing a candidate or an issue into the polling place. You will, however, be asked to remove these items by a poll worker or risk misdemeanor charges. Any and all campaign materials, including apparel, must be a minimum of 100 ft. outside of the polling place at all times…

I was just discussing this with friends, and they seemed to think that a conspiracy was afoot. They felt as though this was going to be used as a way to keep Obama supporters — who are clearly more likely to be wearing campaign gear than McCain supporters – from voting. Some friends even went so far as to suggest that the manufacturers of some of the more appealing pieces of Obama-wear could be Republican operatives. Whether by design or by chance, the result could be hundreds, if not thousands of Obama supporters being turned away from the polls by Republican challengers. A certain percentage would, of course, go home and change, returning later to vote, but some percentage would not. And, in a an election such as this one, where every vote is going to count, Obama supporters have begun discussing alternatives. It’s been reported to me that, for instance, that in Ypsilanti, a group of Obama supporters is planning to keep a box of extra-large sweaters at the 100-foot mark, just in case voters arrive wearing campaign gear that can’t be easily removed. As yet, I don’t believe there’s been a coordinated campaign to enact similar plans throughout swing states where such laws exist, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, over the next month, we started hearing of Democratic clothing drives for just such a purpose.

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11 Comments

  1. Jill
    Posted October 8, 2008 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    When I lived in Ypsi and voted at the Senior Center, I did indeed hear a poll worker tell a voter that they had to remove a pin or t-shirt or something they had on. Can’t remember which election this was, possibly presidential in 2004. Sad, sad, sad.

  2. mark
    Posted October 8, 2008 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t imagine it will be a huge problem. Given how cold it will be, I suspect that most people will have jackets with them that they can use to cover the offending shirts. And hats and buttons can just be removed. I’m sure, however, that some folks will be left standing there with nothing to change into, and no time to go home and change before having to head back to work. Some votes, I’m certain, will be lost due to this rule and that’s a shame. I can see why we’d want to keep people with literature and signs away from the polling place, but I don’t think a t-shirt really matters in the least.

  3. anonymous
    Posted October 9, 2008 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Suppose you’re an Obama supporter, and you walk into the polling station to find it’s filled with people wearing McCain t-shirts and looking angry. Sure, your vote is secret, but still you’d feel rather put off from voting, this time or next.

    Suppose you’re a McCain supporter, and you walk into the polling station to find it’s filled with people wearing Obama t-shirts and looking angry…

    So overall, it seems like a good rule to me. It’s not like it’s brand new this election year–the rule itself isn’t a new partisan attack strategy. How it’s enforced may be a different matter.

  4. Posted October 9, 2008 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Michigan law prevents campaigning inside the precinct. That includes wearing campaign messages or handing out campaign literature. The slightly mixed message is a result of your constitutional right to vote. While you can’t be deprived of the right to vote because you wore something inappropriate to the polls, you can be charged with a crime for violating state law by campaigning (i.e. displaying a campaign message) while in the polling place.

    Most poll workers know to direct people with campaign clothing on to turn their shirt inside out, their jacket inside out, cover or remove their buttons, etc.

    Protecting from improper application of this law is why it is so important to volunteer to be a Democratic poll challenger. The Republican Party will be out in force throughout Democratic areas trying to prevent Democrats from voting, and having a counterpoint to that voice at each polling place could make the difference in this election.

  5. Posted October 9, 2008 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I support it. In my district, the prolifers hang out outside the polling place and hand out Bibles and intimidate voters with pictures of aborted fetuses. People are afraid to tell them to go away because of the Jesus factor but I usually give them the finger because polling places are not forums for swaying voters one way or another.

  6. Doug
    Posted October 9, 2008 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really think this is bad policy. Doesn’t favor one team or the other, anyway.

  7. Karen
    Posted October 10, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I worked the polls in 2000, and I can tell you we were way, way too busy to track down police and ask that they charge offending voters with a misdemeanor. We handled these cases politely and it wasn’t a big problem.

    I don’t see what is “sad” about asking a voter to take a pin off. Sure, I doubt that most t-shirt or pins are going to sway a voter when they’re minutes away from casting their vote. Most are harmless. But what if someone wore something very inflammatory? Or what if they were wearing it along with something that made them look authoritative and intimidating? Rather than ask poll workers to make the judgment call (when after all, they’re just regular people, working a couple of days a year on this task, and they’re sometimes stretched thin for big elections), it makes sense to have a consistent policy!

    Another thing we did, related to this law, was cover up the names of incumbent township officers which appeared on the big precinct map at the polling site.

    A couple of other comments–I am really, really pleased that people are getting the word out on this! After the 2000 election, a number of people in states across the country reported enforcement of this rule as “oppression of their rights as voters.” It was no such thing. Voters could still vote, they simply had to take a simple step to comply with the state law.

    And yes, I was at the S.O.S. website this week to make sure I could use a passport if I couldn’t find my driver’s license (yes, I could). I was dismayed at that website. Not helpful, incomplete, hard to find information. It’s BAD.

  8. Robert
    Posted October 10, 2008 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Mark. We should allow police dogs and firehoses inside polling locations too.

  9. Robert
    Posted October 11, 2008 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    …but only for purposes of demonstrating excitement for one’s candidate of choice.

  10. mark
    Posted October 11, 2008 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    For the record, I wasn’t suggesting that people should be able to wear t-shirts, signs, and sandwich boards to the polls. I think it’s a good policy. I was just suggesting that some groups might want to make jackets and the like available so that voters don’t have to go home and change, possibly not returning. I don’t get Robert’s fire hose comment, but, then again, I rarely get anything Robert says. (I think he might be arguing that it’s an infringement of his freedom of expression not to let him bring his fire hose into the polls. I’m not sure what he means by that, though. Or, then again, maybe he was referring to his giant penis when he said fire hose.)

  11. Robert
    Posted October 11, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you cleared that up…

    …I mean the part about my penis being like a firehose, of course.

    You don’t even want to get into what I mean when I say “police dog”.

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