Dress code to vote? Supreme Court to decide proper attire at the polling place

WASHINGTON — People headed to the polls on Election Day in Minnesota have two things to think about — how to vote and what to wear.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hears a challenge to the state's ban on wearing T-shirts, hats, and any other clothing containing political messages to polling places.

The state says the law preserves a safe voting environment, free from intimidation. Opponents say the restriction is so vague it violates the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.

While all states outlaw electioneering at the polls, Minnesota and a handful of others go further, prohibiting clothes or buttons that mention not only a candidate, a political party or a ballot issue, but also any group with recognizable political views, such as the tea party or MoveOn.Org.

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A circular staircase is seen in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
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When Andrew Cilek showed up to vote in 2010 wearing a "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt and a button that said "Please I.D. Me," he was told to cover them up or take them off before he could cast a ballot. He was finally allowed to vote after a poll worker took down his name and address for possible prosecution.

When he and other Minnesotans sued, lower courts upheld the law as a reasonable way to preserve decorum at the polls.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the challengers say the law goes too far, restricting "the most peaceful method of political expression — the silent wearing of clothing," including T-shirts that merely name a political group or ideology and make no attempt to persuade voters.

The ACLU agreed, arguing that the electorate "is surely hardy enough to vote their conscience," even if they see a Black Lives Matter shirt or a Women's March hat.

Delaware, Kansas, Montana, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont have laws similar to Minnesota's, according to the challengers.

Minnesota urges the court to uphold the restrictions as necessary to preserve order and decorum at the polls and prevent voter confusion and intimidation.

"The right to vote and the integrity of our elections must be jealously protected," said Daniel Rogan of the county attorney's office in Hennepin County, Minnesota.

A key legal question is what kind of First Amendment protections apply at the polls. Minnesota says they are government-controlled properties, allowing states to impose more restrictions on expression that would be allowed in, for example, a public park.

The National Association of Counties and other local government groups, in a friend-of-court brief, say delays and fights on Election Day remain common. "For all the progress the United States has made in the past century, polling-place problems are still widespread," the brief says.

The court will issue a decision in the case by late June.

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