Election 2008


On Election Day, millions of people will be casting ballots for the first time and may not know all the rules. Supporters of Barack Obama have been emailing and text messaging people about what not to wear to the polls. In some states, if people show up at the polls with a candidate's name on a T-shirt or a hat, they could have a problem. From member station WHQR, Catherine Welch reports.

CATHERINE WELCH: The elections office in Horry County, South Carolina, 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 a T-shirt, they will be asked to take it off or cover it up.

LYNN MARLOWE: Some of the managers there will take a jacket for the people to use if they're coming in to vote, and they will let them put that jacket on before they go to vote. If not, they have to turn - if it's a shirt, turn it inside outwards.

WELCH: 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. But down the street at Bernie's Cafe in Conway, South Carolina, Becky Smith scoffs at the notion.

BECKY SMITH: Think of all of those T-shirts they've sold. You see them everywhere online, the Obama and the Palin T-shirts. I wonder how many people are going to have to disrobe before they vote.

WELCH: 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.

CHERYL LOCKE: 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. It would create chaos.

WELCH: Pennsylvania, a battleground state, still hasn't resolved what voters can wear at 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.

DANIEL SMITH: There's an awful lot of latitude for the states to interpret what is free speech within a polling station.

WELCH: University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith says there's a heightened awareness of these laws this election.

SMITH: I think there's a partisanship to this. With respect to the dampening effect that such laws may have, it may be intimidating to new voters who may want to be wearing a shirt proudly for a candidate, but then be told that they can't do so and vote.

WELCH: And since there's such a mishmash of states and exceptions, Smith expects the issue to linger on into future elections. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

INSKEEP: There's no reason for your confusion to linger even into this election, and we want to help. If you are confused about the elections laws where you are, just send us your questions to this address, morning@npr.org. Put in the subject line "Voting Questions," and we're going to try to provide some answers to you later this week right on the program.

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