Expression at the polls

Last election, Jillian Ostrewich drove to a polling place at a Houston rec center, expecting to vote. But she made the mistake of wearing a “Houston Fire Fighters” t-shirt. An election worker confronted Jillian, insisting that she couldn’t vote unless she turned the offending shirt inside out. The rationale: a measure on the ballot was related to firefighter pay, and the shirt was related to firefighters.

Tony Ortiz suffered a similar fate in Dallas. Tony’s crime was wearing a MAGA hat while he stood in the voting line outside his local library. An election worker said he couldn’t wear the hat to the polls because the MAGA slogan constituted “electioneering.” Tony responded that the hat had nothing to do with any issue or candidate on the ballot. The election worker threatened to call the police.

These election workers were relying on a Texas law that forbids electioneering or wearing “a badge, insignia, emblem, or other similar communicative device relating to a candidate, measure, or political party appearing on the ballot” in or near a polling place. The law even prohibits someone from wearing an ID if the name is the same as someone appearing on the ballot. A violation is a criminal misdemeanor. Today, my colleagues and I at Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jillian and Tony challenging the Texas ban.

As it happens, the Supreme Court issued a decision just last year striking down a similar law in another case brought by Pacific Legal Foundation called Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky. The Minnesota law in MVA prohibited wearing a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” in the polling place. The Court said states can limit some electioneering at the polling place to prevent voter intimidation and excessive disruption. But the government has to have some clear and logical basis for sifting “what may come in from what must stay out.”

The word “political” was not a clear boundary. As the Court noted, almost anything could be considered political, and the fuzzy language offered too much wiggle room for abuse and discrimination. The attorney arguing for Minnesota drove this point home during an onslaught of blistering questions in oral argument: how about a rainbow flag shirt? Permitted, maybe. How about a “Parkland Strong” shirt? Permitted, probably. How about an NRA shirt? Definite no. How about a shirt with the text of the Second Amendment? Definite no. At about that point, most everyone knew the outcome of the case–the attorney had just proven the inherently arbitrary standard he was trying to defend.

The Texas case filed today is a bit different. For one, the ban extends to 100 feet outside the polling place, which clearly encompasses sidewalks and other public areas where speech rights enjoy their widest berth. But the ban is not quite as amorphous as the word “political.” Instead, the ban extends to messages that relate to a candidate, measure, or party on the ballot.

This slightly narrower language probably doesn’t save the Texas law. After all, almost anything can be considered related to a candidate if the candidate has taken any kind of position on it. If a candidate has criticized Trump (have any not?), then is Tony’s MAGA hat “related” to the candidate? If Ben & Jerry’s takes a position on a ballot measure, does a Ben & Jerry’s shirt relate to that ballot measure? Maybe, but it depends on the election worker–and therein lies the problem. As the Supreme Court said in MVA, “A rule whose fair enforcement requires an election judge to maintain a mental index of the platforms and positions over every candidate and party on the ballot is not reasonable.” Not only would such an index be impossible, but the contents and application of that index would be dictated by an election worker’s own biases and background.

The integrity of the electoral process is vital. But surely Jillian’s firefighter shirt or even the much-reviled MAGA emblem do not imperil the right to vote. Wed don’t shed the right to express ourselves in peaceable ways when we step into a polling line.

Please keep it civil

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