Political Apparel Banned From Polls: Violation of Free Speech?

No Political Apparel At Polls? Expert Weighs In

Usually, you plan out who you're voting for. But do you plan out what to wear when you do it? In Minnesota, voters no longer can wear apparel that 'seeks to influence voters,' even if it does not name candidates or political parties.

Critics say it's unconstitutional -- a violation of free speech. Supporters argue the interior of a polling place is a non-public forum where certain speech restrictions are constitutional.

The case has made its way to the US Supreme Court, and it'll be up to the judges to decide constitutionality. 

Elon Poll director Jason Husser weighed in on the Good Morning Show to answer questions about the ruling's potential implications.

What’s the constitutional question the judges will be considering?

Husser: This might seem like an odd case for the Supreme Court to hear. The justices only select about 1% of cases requested each year- so why are they talking about buttons and t-shirts? In this case of Minnesota Voters Alliance vs. Mansky, much more is at stake than just dress codes. The justices will be interpreting what the 1st Amendment means for what state election officials can restrict more broadly. The court may also clarify what the difference is between issue advocacy and express advocacy and why that matters for many, many election issues.

Explain the argument on both sides.

Husser: State officials say that voting places are different than other public spaces. They say the act of voting is special and voters should be free from distractions and advertisements. 

Those suing the state, say that the law is too broad and it could be interpreted to mean that no one could express political values near a voting site. Attorneys for those suing the state have said voters shouldn't pay a fine for simply wearing a t-shift that expresses their beliefs.

The argument might come down to defining how a shirt that says "these are my values" is different than "Candidate X is awesome." 

Does North Carolina have similar laws on the books?

Husser: According to this email exchange from 2008 with an NCSBE official, NC didn't in 2008, at least. I'm not aware of changes since then. This is relevant legislation in NC. 

This CBS article from 2008 suggests the National Conference of State Legislatures may have a full list of states, but I couldn't find it on their website.

Based on SCOTUS’s current makeup, how do you think the judges will rule?

Husser: This is difficult to predict. Freedom of expression cases like this often make unusual allies across ideological lines.

If the Supreme Court upholds this law, what kind of precedent will this set for future political expression?

Husser: Supreme Court decisions often seem like philosophical arguments about small-scale fights, but their outcomes almost always have sweeping implications.

This case could change the message state and local officials get about how they should balance the need for administrative regulations for orderly elections and the need to protect free speech. The case might also define what election or "express" advocacy means in comparison to issue advocacy. That question is very important for campaign finance.

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