SBE to meet Tuesday to consider proposed ban on political buttons and t-shirtsRichmond, VA – In a letter faxed this morning, the ACLU of Virginia has urged the State Board of Elections to adopt a policy allowing voters to wear t-shirts and political messages while in the polling place. The SBE is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a draft policy that, as written, prohibits political apparel in the polling place by equating such apparel with partisan campaign materials handed to voters before they reach the polls.
Virginia, like most states, bans electioneering within 40 feet of a polling place in order to prevent voters from being intimidated or inappropriately influenced in the last moments before casting their ballots. But the provisions of the Virginia law regarding apparel in the polling place are unclear and have led local registrars to adopt different interpretations of it over the years.
“We believe that the Virginia law can and should be interpreted to allow individuals to wear political apparel when they vote,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “and that is what we have asked the State Board of Elections to do.”
“The law in Virginia is obviously intended to ban electioneering in the polling place, not silent, passive personal political statements,” added Willis. “We believe that the state has nothing to fear by allowing individuals to wear political buttons and t-shirts in polling places, that it is consistent with the constitutional right of free speech to protect such expression and, frankly, that registrars and poll workers have a lot more important things to do on Election Day than to monitor voters’ clothing.”
The ACLU’s letter also points out that the draft policy is likely to cause a great deal of confusion on Election Day because it implies the need to draw distinctions between expression in support of a particular candidate and more generalized political advocacy, a line that is often hard to draw even in court cases. For example, while a “Vote for Obama” or “Vote for McCain” button would clearly be prohibited under the proposed policy, it is unclear whether a pro- or anti-George Bush button or t-shirt with a donkey or elephant symbol on it would be allowed.
The ACLU of Virginia is asking voters who intend to wear political apparel to the polls on Election Day to contact its election protection project at 804/644-8080.
The ACLU’s letter to the State Board of Elections Secretary Nancy Rodrigues, Chair Jean Cunningham, and Vice-Chair Harold Pyon can be found at the following link: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20081010-Campaign-Materials-in-Polling-Place-SBE-Let.pdf
CONTACT: Kent Willis, office (804) 644-8022