Bar election gear at polls, court asked
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HARRISBURG -- Two Allegheny County poll workers have gone to court to overturn a state agency's decision that could permit voters to wear political T-shirts, buttons and stickers when they enter a polling place Nov. 4.
In a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court yesterday, Richard Kraft and John Dickinson criticized a Department of State letter, which was sent to all 67 county boards of election this week, allowing each county board to decide for itself whether to permit "passive electioneering."
That's the department's term for voters who wear clothing, buttons or stickers that contain a candidate's name or picture when the voters show up to cast their ballot. The state's stance means some counties could allow the wearing of political garments and other counties won't.
In the suit, the plaintiffs contend that state law prohibits any type of "electioneering" or soliciting votes at a polling place, and they ask the court to overturn the Department of State's ruling.
According to the suit, the law states: "No person, when within the polling place, shall electioneer or solicit votes for any political party, political body or candidate." It calls the Department of State's stance allowing the T-shirts "unauthorized and legally erroneous."
The two poll workers asked for a speedy court hearing on the matter because the Nov. 4 election isn't that far off.
Republican Party officials, including state Chairman Bob Gleason, objected on Thursday to the state's position, claiming it will turn poll workers into "fashion police," and could cause "chaos" at a polling place if an election worker tells a would-be voter to remove his T-shirt or button. Mr. Gleason thinks the state election code is clear -- no electioneering at all inside a polling place, passive or otherwise.
But American Civil Liberties Union officials welcomed the state's ruling, saying voters' rights of free speech, as exhibited in "passive" forms of expression such as T-shirts and buttons, should be protected.
The ACLU's legal director in Pittsburgh, Witold Walczak, said that active electioneering, such as a voter who urges other voters inside a polling place to vote for a certain candidate, is clearly prohibited. He also said that poll workers should be banned from "displaying politically partisan messages" or telling people how to vote.
"But we're talking about a person who just goes there to vote,'' he said yesterday. "We think that such a person has a First Amendment right to express a personal political message (by wearing a T-shirt or button). That will not jeopardize the integrity of the voting process."
He said he fears that if the wearing of T-shirts or buttons is totally banned, "You, in effect, create a dress code for voters," which could lead to "discriminatory enforcement" by poll workers.
He said that after the April primary, the ACLU received a "handful of complaints" from voters who wore T-shirts for Democratic candidate Barack Obama and were told by poll workers to turn them inside out before voting. Such complaints came from Obama supporters in Montgomery County, York and Mt. Lebanon, he said.
He said the ACLU may seek to intervene in the lawsuit to help the Pennsylvania Department of State defend its policy.
First Published September 20, 2008 12:14 am