Polling Places Are Supposed To Be Politics-Free. Could That Change? Polling places are a politics-free zone. Could that change with a Supreme Court case out of Minnesota? The court is hearing arguments in a key case on this Wednesday.
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Should Polling Places Remain Politics-Free? Justices Incredulous At Both Sides

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Should Polling Places Remain Politics-Free? Justices Incredulous At Both Sides


Should Polling Places Remain Politics-Free? Justices Incredulous At Both Sides

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Every state has a law mandating these buffer zones outside polling places where there can't be any campaigning at all, and these are laws the Supreme Court has long upheld. And today, the court is tackling similar, maybe even stricter laws that bar political apparel inside polling places. Here's NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Until the early 1900s, election days looked nothing like they do now. There were no quiet lines of people waiting to vote in curtained-off booths. Instead, election days were raucous, confusing, even violent affairs. Voters then, as now, often were split into battling ethnic and ideological tribes. Except that back then, the battles outside and inside polling places were often physical. Coats were torn from people's backs, ballots snatched from their hands. Voters were threatened. And in factory towns, managers often stood at the polling place door to make sure that employees voted the, quote, "right way."

In the late 1800s, states began enacting laws to protect voters from harassment and intimidation. Soon, all 50 states had laws that banned electioneering outside polling places and usually even stricter laws inside polling places. In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld a 100-foot politics-free buffer zone outside of polling places. Today's case is about what goes on inside polling places, specifically whether states like Minnesota may bar voters from wearing apparel or buttons that bear a political message.

Under enforcement guidelines issued for Election Day, poll watchers were told to ask voters to either cover up or remove any item of clothing, badge or button that supported or opposed a candidate, ballot question or political party or group, including those like the Tea Party or moveon.org. Also banned was any item designed to influence voting, including specifically please-ID-me buttons. The buttons were distributed by, among others, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which acknowledged that by wearing the buttons and flashing their IDs, they were creating the false impression that Minnesota law requires a photo ID in order to vote. Enter Andrew Cilek, the executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance.

ANDREW CILEK: I just went in to vote in November of 2010. I was wearing a T-shirt. It's said Tea Party patriots. Don't tread on me.

TOTENBERG: According to affidavits in the case, he was also wearing a please-ID-me button.

CILEK: I simply asked for a ballot, and then they refused me twice. The only explanation they gave me is that that shirt was political.

TOTENBERG: The third time, he came back with his lawyer, and he was allowed to vote still wearing his T-shirt and button. But because he could have been fined, Cilek and the Minnesota Voters Alliance sued, claiming that his constitutional free speech rights had been violated.

CILEK: I think the fundamental principle is that I had a right to wear that T-shirt.

TOTENBERG: Cilek's lawyer, Wen Fa, argues that the Minnesota law unconstitutionally sweeps too much speech into a ban on political apparel inside polling places.

WEN FA: In addition to just banning campaign-related speech like vote for Bush or vote for Gore, it bans passive speech. For example, the government itself conceded that this ban would also apply to people wearing shirts featuring the logo of the AFL-CIO or the Chamber of Commerce.

TOTENBERG: Yes, says Daniel Rogan, who's defending the apparel ban - he did make that concession, but only if the ballot included a measure that directly involved either the union or the chamber. There's nothing nefarious about the apparel ban, says Ginny Gelms, the elections manager for Minneapolis. Most people who are wearing a T-shirt or button are simply unaware of the rule, and when asked to cover it up with a jacket or take it off, they quickly comply.

GINNY GELMS: And usually, you know, it's resolved without any further incident.

TOTENBERG: Cilek's refusal to do that, she says, was viewed as confusing to voters, disruptive and designed to draw election judges into a dispute. Election officials worried, for instance, that people in the line would leave without voting if they thought erroneously that they needed a photo ID to vote and hadn't brought one with them. Indeed, she says, one head election judge told her he was not sure he would serve again if the ban is struck down because he wouldn't be able to protect the judges he supervises from getting drawn into political battles. After all, Gelms contends, that's not what polling places are for.

GELMS: All those restrictions are there to help the election judges manage a calm and efficient process so that everybody who has the right to vote can get in, exercise that right and move on with their day.

TOTENBERG: In the Supreme Court today, lawyer Rogan, defending the ban, will tell the justices that a polling place like a courtroom or a military base is not a public forum where people can say anything they want. It is a government-run facility with a specific function.

DANIEL ROGAN: The interior of a polling place is designed for one purpose. It's designed to provide citizens a place to make their electoral choices and to ensure that those choices are accurately and reliably tallied by elections officials.

TOTENBERG: Rogan fears that if the Supreme Court were to invalidate the Minnesota ban on political apparel inside polling places, the next step would be to revisit the Supreme Court decision on electioneering outside the polling place. Indeed, the lawyer for Mr. Cilek refuses to rule that out. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as well as in a previous version of the Web story, we say 50 states had laws on intimidation and harassment at the polls around the turn of the 20th century. There were not 50 states at the time. In addition, a previous version of this story misspelled Andrew Cilek's last name as Celik.]

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