Political Fashion

Is there a dress code for voters on Election Day?

Obama shirt. Click image to expand.
Obama shirt

A Connecticut judge ruled Wednesday that voters dressed in World Wrestling Entertainment-themed garb on Election Day cannot be turned away from the polls, even though Republican senatorial candidate Linda McMahon was once the company’s CEO. Is there a dress code for voters?

Yes. Just about every state has a statute that prohibits electioneering activities within a certain distance (anywhere from 25 to 300 feet) of polling places, which is usually interpreted to disallow clothing that endorses a political stance. (The technical term for wearing politically themed garments is “passive electioneering.”) Ten states explicitly ban clothing or buttons that endorse a candidate or ballot issue, according to a 2006 survey of state electioneering laws. Eight states prohibit voters from “displaying” or “exhibiting” campaign materials, which could be interpreted to include shirts, while 14 states and the District of Columbia say that voters can’t distribute such materials. Three states merely prohibit “loitering” near polling places, but in practice, political clothing is banned there as well.

States occasionally tweak the rules. In 2008, after several primary voters were turned away for wearing shirts that were considered political endorsements, the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a memo urging county election officials to let voters wear political garb as long as they “take no additional action to attempt to influence other voters in the polling place.” Some counties chose not to obey the memo. Two poll workers even sued the Department of State, arguing that allowing political garb would break the law. A judge ruled that each county could decide for itself.

Where do we draw the line between political clothing and regular garb? It’s pretty subjective, so states usually address the issue on a case-by-case basis. In Houston, a woman recently got turned away for wearing an Obama 2008 T-shirt—even though Obama isn’t on the ballot. In Dallas, a voter was not allowed to vote after refusing to remove a button featuring the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag. In 2004, an elections administrator in Arlington, Texas, banned voters from wearing Dallas Cowboys paraphernalia because of a ballot question asking whether taxpayers should help pay for a new Cowboys stadium in their city. As for a case outside of the Lone Star State: In Arizona, a federal judge gave a woman temporary permission to wear her Tea Party T-shirt while voting but said the case could go to court again after the election.

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Explainer thanks Terri Enns of Ohio State University, Laughlin McDonald of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Kimberly J. Tucker of the American University Washington College of Law.

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