Don’t wear your favorite Barack Obama T-shirt or your shiny John McCain campaign button Nov. 4: You might get hassled at the polls.
An obscure, seldom-enforced state law bars anyone from wearing political buttons and other campaign paraphernalia within “a 100-foot radial measured from the entrances of the voting booth.”
With the election just over a month away, the law is suddenly gaining notice: an email begging potential Obama voters to “PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE” leave T-shirts and buttons home on Election Day is circulating on the Internet – spurring worried calls and emails to state election officials. The New York Civil Liberties Union plans – for the first time – to include a similar warning in its voter information materials.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Pennsylvania are calling on officials to enforce that state’s similar “passive electioneering” law banning campaign paraphernalia at the polls, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sept. 19.
In New York, election officials said they would stick to the law even as they tried to downplay concerns.
No Jail Worries
“No one will be thrown in jail over a shirt at the polls,” said state Board of Elections spokesman Bob Brehm, whose office has been bombarded by calls and emails from worried voters.
But Brehm noted that anyone wearing a campaign button or T-shirt will be asked to remove the item.
Jason Weingartner, executive director of the New York Republican County Committee, said the law is a good one – as long as it’s consistently applied. “It doesn‘t put undue pressure on individual voters who are exercising their constitutional rights,” he said.
City Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) agreed, but added that in his experience the law “isn’t as strictly enforced as it should be.”
Palyn Hung, a NYCLU staff attorney, said her group is including warnings about the law on its voters’ rights cards.
“We’re not saying you’re absolutely prohibited (from wearing campaign paraphernalia), but we’re advising people that they might not be allowed to go in” to the polls, she said.
History of Lax Enforcement
While election and party officials are familiar with the law, the general public isn’t. Voters wearing campaign buttons to the polls largely have been ignored for years, said David Epstein, a political science professor at Columbia University.
The law “is generally not enforced in New York or it’s enforced unevenly. Sometimes, they’ll let you wear bumper stickers though they will definitely kick you out if you start soliciting people,” he said.
New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Marcus Cederqvist, though, recalled a long-ago brush with poll workers.
“I was forced to remove a button once,” he said.
Steve Richman, the city Board of Elections’ general counsel, said the law is at least three decades old – and carries a penalty for those who refuse to comply.
“It’s a misdemeanor – seven months to a year in jail,” said Richman.
No one, though, could remember anyone being put behind bars for wearing a campaign button to the New York polls. But some officials recalled voters who went to extreme measures to try to evade the law.
“One year, a voter brought in a sheet cake with a candidate’s name and an inspector smeared the name with a knife,” said Helen Kiggins, the commissioner of elections in upstate Onondaga County.
Phone and email messages left with the Obama campaign did not get an immediate response. Peter Feldman, a McCain campaign spokesman in New York and New Jersey said, “We are okay with the law.”
(UPDATE: Obama spokesman Blake Zeff said, “We are grateful for the historic enthusiasm Obama supporters have generated, and want to assure them that registered voters will not be denied the right to vote. While we will help them comply with the law and they may be asked to remove a button or turn a shirt inside out, we encourage voters to show their support for Senator Obama.”)