Here’s what the best-dressed voters will be wearing to the polls this year:
The U.S. Supreme Court slapped down Minnesota’s voting booth ban on political apparel, on the grounds that Election Day dress codes are bad and dumb and a violation of the First Amendment.
Asking voters to turn their T-shirts inside out before they vote sounds like a small thing.
But it was a tangible barrier to voting in a country that’s been throwing up too many lately.
The same high court just gave Ohio its blessing to purge inactive voters from the rolls. As if voting were less a right than a fish taco that the government needs to slap out of your hands if you walk around with it for too long without taking a bite.
And yes, not voting is as stupid as not eating a delicious fish taco that is yours by birthright. Which reminds me that a) I need to re-register to vote in Minnesota and b) I need to stop writing columns this close to lunch.
Minnesota had good intentions and bad execution when it set out to turn polling places into tranquil, slogan-free oases. Plenty of states ban campaign shirts and buttons that promote candidates or ballot issues, but Minnesota stretched the language into a blanket ban on “political apparel.”
The law didn’t define “political apparel,” but election judges were expected to know it when they saw it. Was a Second Amendment shirt more provocative than a First Amendment button? What sort of political statement does one of those MPR raccoon tote bags send?
For those who love pushing buttons as much as wearing them, it was an irresistible temptation.
On Election Day 2010, members of three conservative or libertarian groups donned their finery and headed to the polls to see what would happen. Two of them tangled with election workers, including Andy Cilek, who arrived at his Hennepin County polling station wearing a Tea Party shirt and a button that read “Please I.D. Me.”
Although Cilek was eventually allowed to cast his vote without changing his clothes, the incident spawned an eight-year legal battle that ended at the Supreme Court last week. It was a case that brought Cilek, who wants Minnesotans to show identification before they can vote, shoulder to shoulder with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which views voter I.D. as a cynical attempt to disenfranchise minorities and the elderly.
Cilek doesn’t have big plans for next Election Day. Now that he’s made his point, he said, he might just vote absentee. He does think state lawmakers should just let Minnesotans wear whatever they want when they vote. When was the last time an obnoxious T-shirt changed minds?
“The only way to fix that statute is to get rid of it,” he said. “I have no idea where the line lies between political and campaign. … If you wore a Star and Tribune shirt in to vote, there’s a lot of people who think the Star and Tribune is political.”
(Side note: I have a Star Tribune shirt that says “I <heart> the Minnesota State Fair” if anyone wants to test some boundaries.)
Election officials aren’t shedding any tears over the ruling, including Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, who was named in the suit.
For years, Mansky has kept a stack of construction-style safety vests he picked up at Home Depot, just in case someone violated the dress code. The vests will still be around for the 2018 primary and general election because the ban on campaigning inside polling places still stands. There’s no word yet on whether a MAGA hat would be considered a campaign prop or political expression.
“We don’t think that this is going to be a problem,” Mansky said. Dress code challenges are rare.
“Every now and then, someone will come in with a T-shirt that has the name of a political candidate or a political party and we’ll bring out one of the 3M vests,” he said. “At least in our office, people are happy to wear them. They understand fundamentally that coming in with a candidate’s name or a party name is off-limits. … It’s this other stuff, the political messaging, that was not well defined. … The Legislature needs to define exactly what they mean by political, and I’m sure they will.”
The Legislature will have to tweak the letter of the law, but meanwhile Secretary of State Steve Simon said he’ll issue updated guidance to election officials to ensure they abide by the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling.
“I am gratified that the Supreme Court today provided clarity for Minnesotans, while also recognizing the vital interest of maintaining an ‘island of calm’ in our polling places,” Simon said in a statement after last week’s 7-2 ruling.
If you’re struggling with what to wear, or just struggling to pull on pants, Simon offered this helpful reminder: “Minnesotans can wear anything they want if they make use of our ‘Vote from Home’ law, which allows all voters to vote from home without having to go to a polling place.”
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