At Polls In S.C., Don't Wear Politics On Your Sleeve

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Millions of newly registered voters are expected to turn out for next month's presidential election. Supporters of Barack Obama have been e-mailing and text-messaging them about what not to wear. Depending on what state they live in, if voters show up at the polls with a candidate's name on a T-shirt or hat, they could be turned away.

The elections office in Horry County, S.C., bustles as people stream in on one of the last days to register to vote.

Elections manager Lynn Marlowe says if one of these new voters tries to cast a ballot wearing a political hat, button or T-shirt, he or she will be asked to take it off or cover it up.

"Some of the managers there will take a jacket for the people to use for coming in to vote, and they will let them put that jacket on before they go to vote," she says. "If not, if it's a shirt, they have to turn it inside outward."

This South Carolina law has been in effect for more than 40 years. It requires poll workers to keep political displays at least 200 feet away from the voting booth. Marlowe says nobody's ever put up a stink — Southern manners, perhaps.

Down the street at a Bernie's Café in Conway, S.C., however, Becky Smith scoffs at the notion.

"Think of all of those T-shirts they've sold. You see 'em everywhere online — the Obama and Palin T-shirts. I wonder how many people are going to have to disrobe before they vote," she says, laughing.

At the next table over, Cheryl Locke listens in and butts into the conversation. She happens to be a poll worker and puts down her cheeseburger to defend the law.

"I think people have plenty of freedom of speech, but the polls should be a neutral place, otherwise you have people in there that would be politicking," she says. "It would create chaos."

Pennsylvania, a battleground state, still hasn't resolved what voters can wear to the polls. New York and Vermont have banned political items outright. Some California counties will solve the problem by handing out paper smocks. Kentucky says people can wear whatever they want at the polls, as long as they're not a walking, political billboard.

"There's an awful lot of latitude for the states to interpret what is free speech within a polling station," says University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith.

He says there's a heightened awareness of these laws this election.

"I think there's a partisanship to this, with respect to the dampening effect that such a law may have," he says. "It may be intimidating to new voters who may want to be wearing a shirt proudly for a candidate, but then be told they can't do so and vote."

And since there's such a mishmash of states and exceptions, Smith expects the issue to linger on into future elections.

Catherine Welch reports for WHQR.

Correction Oct. 8, 2008

Following this story, we gave an incorrect e-mail address for listeners to send their questions about voting laws. We should have said to go to npr.org and click on the words "Contact us."

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