Beware of electioneering at the polls

Steve Orr, Joseph Spector, John Christensen
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, The Chronicle-Express

‘Go Joe’ or ‘Trump 2020’ hats are a no; BLM shirts and MAGA hats are OK

When you go to a polling place in New York this fall, you’re free to keep your favorite candidate’s name in your heart—but not on your T-shirt.

Slogans like “Black lives matter” or “Make America Great Again” are acceptable on attire at polling places, according to New York State rules. Any mention of candidates is not.

As in-person voting begins Saturday in an emotionally supercharged presidential contest, elections officials are reminding voters that clothing or other items that display the name of a candidate or political party are forbidden within 100 feet of a polling place.

Voters will be required to wear face masks to lessen the risk of coronavirus infection, but they can’t bear any candidate’s name or visage.

Verbally proselytizing on behalf of one candidate over another while voting also is considered electioneering, which is a misdemeanor under state law.

In an apparent reversal of past guidance, though, the state Board of Elections told local officials Thursday that the “Make America Great Again” caps that are a hallmark of President Donald Trump’s campaign are acceptable at polling places.

Just a day earlier, several county elections officials had told the USA TODAY Network New York that MAGA hats were barred. On Thursday, they said the state offered new details.

Slogans like “Black lives matter” or “Make America Great Again” are acceptable on attire at polling places, according to New York State rules. Any mention of candidates is not.

“You can wear a MAGA hat. You cannot wear a shirt that says ‘Vote for President Trump,’” said Lisa Nicolay, Monroe County’s Republican elections commissioner.

On the call with the state, Nicolay said, “It specifically came up. They said we can not infringe on people’s freedom of speech.”

Making a MAGA, BLM distinction at the polls

MAGA hats and shirts are now lumped in with apparel that espouses a cause, a movement or a belief that may be political, but does not cite the name of a candidate on the ballot or state a position on a ballot initiative, state officials explained.

So T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Don’t tread on me,” “Ban fracking,” “In God We Trust” or “Black Lives Matter” are allowed.

“What someone wears on election day is not going to sway another’s vote,” says Yates County Democratic Election Commissioner Bob Brechko. “And I ask, is it worth being charged with a misdemeanor and possibly a fine and jail time? Leave your electioneering paraphernalia in your car or at home. I feel good about our voters in Yates County and look forward to having no electioneering issues on Election Day.”

Republican Election Commissioner Rob Schwarting concurs. “As a long time poll inspector and now as Commissioner, I have never seen anyone wearing a candidate’s name or an aggressive party statement into the poll site. I am hopeful that the voters of Yates County will use common sense and show respect for neighbors. I agree with my co-commissioner, Election Day is for voting and not electioneering.” 

Brechko and Schwarting instruct their staff not to wear anything even remotely partisan; therefore pins, badges, decorated scarves, or suspenders are not permitted. They will wear a badge as a poll inspector with their name and party affiliation to assure the public that assistance is being provided by a bipartisan team.

  • The state guidance is that slogans, such as BLM or MAGA, worn by a voter on their mask or cap are permitted because the name/term does not show on the ballot. Talking about the cause in a manner that is designed to influence balloting is not permitted.
  • Messages that are not permitted are ones that contain the name of a candidate on the ballot or refer to passing or rejecting a proposition on the ballot.
  • Talking about a proposition or a candidate is prohibited, and the chair of the poll site will ask the voter to be silent or be removed.
  • Greeters are asked to encourage the voter to remove any cap or mask that supports a candidate or proposition on the ballot to please remove, or in the case of a tee shirt to zip their jacket. Substitute masks are available. 
  • These concerns extend to the 100’ exclusion zone, in which no one can promote a position on the ballot, engage or intimidate other voters, etc.
  • Rallies and demonstrations outside the 100’ zone are also a topic of concern. Those activities cannot intimidate any voter arriving at the poll site and if egregious the activity is subject to dispersal by the police.

Cheryl Couser, a spokeswoman for the state Board of Elections, said in an email that voters “wearing clothing or donning buttons that include political viewpoints—i.e. support of the Second Amendment, marriage equality—do not violate N.Y.’s electioneering prohibition unless the issue itself is unambiguously on the ballot in the form of a ballot proposal.”

She added that the state’s anti-electioneering law was intended to prevent the political campaigns from intruding into the polling place, but not designed to prohibit political expression generally.