The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in on the tricky question of when is it all right to wear a political statement at a polling place, to balance the obvious free speech component of the argument with the right voters have to not be intimidated by an extraordinary political influence.
The case is being offered by The Rutherford Institute, which is asking the justices to strike down a Minnesota law against political speech on any “badge, button, shirt, or hat” at the state’s polling stations.
Calling the law “truly breathtaking” for its First Amendment implications, the organization is arguing that Minnesota Statute 211B.11 is in conflict with the Constitution because it gives unelected and unaccountable polling judges the power to prevent voters from wearing any political badges, buttons or other insignia near a polling location on election day.
“Furthermore, the statute completely lacks any definition of what constitutes ‘political’ speech, giving election judges sole discretion to determine what political speech is on a case-by-case basis,” the institute explained.
In its joint filing with the Cato Institute, The Rutherford Institute is encouraging the Supreme Court to hear Minnesota Majority et al. v. Joe Mansky et al.
“The polling site is one of the few remaining places where citizens can effectively voice their discontent with their government,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of “A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.”
“Shutting down this traditional forum for expression threatens the very democratic principles that this nation was founded on, and undermines the purpose of the First Amendment. In order to preserve the integrity of the First Amendment and the polling place, it is our hope that the high court will grant this petition and invalidate the statute as a violation of the freedom of speech,” he said.
The case dates back to 2010, when lawmakers in Minnesota changed the law to ban such political emblems and insignias at polling places.
The Minnesota Majority, Voters Alliance and other voters rights groups took it to court.
At the district court level, a judge ruled the state’s restriction was not an unconstitutional limit on voters’ speech, and that was affirmed by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the other end of the scale is the undue influence that unrestricted political images and messaging could create.
It was reported that a giant mural of President Obama adorned the wall inside a Philadelphia polling place. And although a judge subsequently ordered the Obama mural be covered up “in its entirety,” poll workers instead “slapped up a few pieces of paper that only partially covered his image,” Fox reported, “while leaving the Obama campaign logo and a quote from the current president in full view for voters.”
The judge’s order came in response to complaints from GOP officials that the mural – which featured the words “Hope” and “Change” – might influence voters at the polling site, a school in Ward 35.
“It is an absolute disgrace,” said Shannon Royer, deputy secretary for external affairs and elections in Pennsylvania, according to the Fox report. “Election materials and electioneering inside the polling place are prohibited by state law. This can be interpreted as trying to influence voters inside the polling place.”
According to Pennsylvania election law, “no person within a polling place may electioneer or solicit votes for any political party, political body, or candidate, nor may any unauthorized written or printed materials be posted within the polling place.”
Likewise, a poster featuring President Obama – with the message “Change the Atmosphere” – was reported to be hanging on a wall inside a polling station at the Jack L. McLean Community Center in Tallahassee, Fla., as depicted in this photo reportedly taken by a voter there.
Also in Florida, a woman wearing an MIT tee-shirt was barred from voting because a poll worker mistook her shirt, touting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as indicating support for Gov. Romney, whose first name is Mitt – with two t’s.
“A woman attempting to vote in West Boca Raton this morning was initially prohibited from entering the polling place because she was wearing a tee shirt with the letters MIT,” reported BocaNewsNow.com. “The woman was ultimately allowed to vote,” the local report reads.
(In related news, a voter in a monkey suit was apparently allowed to vote here.)
In Obama’s home turf of Chicago, a voter at the Ward 4, Precinct 37 polling place (1212 South Plymouth Court, Chicago), photographed “an election judge checking in voters while wearing an Obama hat.”
According to the Weekly Standard posting, “The voter who took the photo says: ‘Woman in front of me also given an extra ballot.’”