What not to wear while voting

Voters are generally asked to leave attire supporting a candidate on the ballot at home before they vote.
Voters are generally asked to leave attire supporting a candidate on the ballot at home before they vote.
Steve Sanchez Photo/Shutterstock
Voters are generally asked to leave attire supporting a candidate on the ballot at home before they vote.

What not to wear while voting

Candidate merchandise is a no-go, but other political apparel is allowed.
October 22, 2020

Voters are generally asked to leave political attire at home before they vote – wearing a Joe Biden shirt or a MAGA hat could cause minor issues at polling places. But poll workers cannot turn voters away for any other political messaging, from Black Lives Matter banners to Second Amendment pins. If it’s not on the ballot, you’re free to wear what you want.

State election law states that electioneering is not allowed inside polling places, or within a 100-foot radius. That means that “no political banner, button, poster or placard shall be allowed in or upon the polling place.” While the law is really meant to prevent campaigns from harassing voters trying to cast their ballots, it also applies to individual voters who wear merchandise from the candidate or political party of their choice.

In theory, electioneering can lead to a misdemeanor charge if someone does not comply with poll workers directives. But in a 2016 Gannett Albany story, a spokesperson for the state Board of Elections said that poll workers don’t make a “big deal” out of someone showing up in candidate attire and that they just ask that person to turn a shirt inside out or remove any buttons before going inside to vote. 

The BOE did not return a request for comment about this story.

However, the law also seems overly broad as to what exactly counts as a “political banner, button, poster or placard.” Does this apply to someone desiring to wear pro-choice pins, or perhaps even a shirt with Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on it? There are plenty who would argue that by wearing such attire, you’re making a political statement.

In reality, any long-established political message is not considered electioneering, and so poll workers cannot ask anyone to change or remove something like a Black Lives Matter shirt before being allowed to vote. In fact, the 2018 Supreme Court case Minnesota Voters Alliance v Mansky found that a law preventing “political apparel” of any kind at or around polling places violated voters’ First Amendment rights.

In response to the ruling, the state Board of Elections issued bipartisan guidance obtained by City & State. The board said the ruling did not impact the state law on electioneering at polling places. The guidance narrowly defined electioneering as “statements for, or against, a candidate or referendum on the ballot,” and applied that narrow interpretation to acceptable apparel as well. 

“Persons wearing clothing or donning buttons that include political viewpoints – i.e. support of the Second Amendment, Marriage Equality, Environmental Sustainability, Immigration Reform, Support for Voter ID Laws – do not violate New York’s electioneering prohibition unless the issue itself is unambiguously on the ballot in the form of a ballot proposal,” the guidance reads. 

Since Black Lives Matter protests, gun rights, Supreme Court nominees and abortion rights, among other subjects, are not being voted on directly on the ballot as referendums in New York, wearing political apparel related to these issues is a constitutionally protected right. And a poll worker who asks anyone to remove such attire before voting is violating both state law, and the constitution. 

With all that being said, however, voting rights advocates still generally recommend leaving any political messaging at home, regardless of its legality, to avoid any potential complications or disruptions at the polls. 

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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