High court asked to iron out polling place clothing dispute

WASHINGTON (AP) – A “Make America Great Again” hat. A tea party T-shirt. A MoveOn.org button.

Wear any one of those items to vote in Minnesota, and a poll worker will likely ask you to remove it or cover it up.

Like a number of states, Minnesota bars voters from wearing political items to the polls to reduce the potential for confrontations or voter intimidation. But that could change. The Supreme Court on February 28 will consider a challenge to the state’s law, in a case that could affect other states, too.

Wen Fa, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, the group behind the challenge to Minnesota’s law, says voters wearing political apparel shouldn’t have to hang up their hats, turn their T-shirts inside out or put their buttons in their bags just to cast a ballot.

Wearing political clothing is “a passive way to express core political values,” said Fa, who said the case is “about the free speech rights of all Americans”.

Minnesota sees it differently. In court papers, it says the law is a “reasonable restriction” that preserves “order and decorum in the polling place” and prevents “voter confusion and intimidation”.

“I think what’s important to understand is the purpose of this prohibition is to protect the fundamental right to vote,” said Daniel Rogan, who is arguing the case for the state and said he doesn’t know of anyone issued a fine of up to $300 allowed under the law. Lower courts have sided with the state.

Beyond Minnesota, state laws vary in their fashion policing of the polls.

Some states allow voters to wear whatever they want. Others bar campaign clothing directly related to candidates or issues on the ballot. Minnesota has a broad law that also bans “political” attire, including clothing promoting a group with understood political views, such as the tea party or MoveOn.org.

The sides in the Supreme Court case disagree about which states have laws similar to Minnesota’s, but each side’s number is roughly 10. Elections officials in states with restrictions say it’s not a big issue. Most people who wear prohibited items to the polls just aren’t aware of the law or forget, officials say, and comply with requests to cover up.