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High court will examine polling-place ban on political apparel

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will determine whether states, including Texas, can ban voters from wearing political messages on T-shirts, buttons and other apparel while inside polling places or within an established distance from the entrance.

The case arose out of Minnesota, where Andrew Cilek was blocked from casting a ballot in 2010 because he was wearing a pro-voter ID button and a T-shirt with a tea party logo, Gadsden flag and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Cilek sued, arguing that the law should be overturned because it violated his free-speech rights and was too broad, requiring enforcement based on subjective judgments by elections officials.

After a federal district judge and an appeals court upheld the law, Cilek turned to the Supreme Court, arguing that Minnesota’s suppression of political speech was a matter of national importance, particularly in the nine other states that similarly ban political apparel in and near the voting booths, including Texas.

“Political messages can be found everywhere if one looks hard enough,” Cilek’s lawyers told the Supreme Court. “It is no stretch to think that some voters may be chilled from going to the polling place if doing so could subject them to criminal and civil penalties at an election judge’s whim.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.

The case has drawn interest because, in addition to the 10 states that ban clothing and buttons with political messages, every state limits political activity in some manner inside and near polling places.

Since 1987, Texas law has barred voters from wearing a “badge, insignia, emblem or other similar communicative device” that relates to a candidate, ballot measure, political party or the way an election is run. The area of the ban begins 100 feet from the polling place door, and violators can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500 but no jail time.

Texas election judges are encouraged to ask voters “to cover up, change or turn inside-out a T-shirt expressing preference for a political candidate, measure or party,” said Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Asking voters to comply with the law is rarely a problem, said Michael Winn, Travis County’s director of elections. When confronted by an election judge, most will zip up a jacket or reverse their T-shirt to hide its message, and polling places are supplied with disposable paper cover-ups, similar to a cape, as an option for voters, he said.

Once voters are beyond the 100-foot marker outside the polling station, they’re free to display the political message again, Winn said.

Minnesota and other states that bar political messages under anti-electioneering laws say they should be able to enforce laws that promote neutrality and preserve decorum in the polling place.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed when it upheld Minnesota’s law in February, ruling that the restriction helped protect voters from confusion and improper influence while preserving the integrity of the election process.

The case before the Supreme Court is Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky.

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