The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a Minnesota law prohibiting voters from wearing political garments or badges to the polls, a ruling likely to trickle down to Texas.
The case pitted individuals’ free speech rights against a state law aimed at maintaining order and decorum in polling places. In 2010, Andy Cilek arrived to his Hennepin County polling place wearing a Tea Party T-shirt that read “Don’t Tread on Me” as well as a “Please I.D. Me” button — an apparent comment on Republican-championed voter identification laws in the state. He sued after an election worker said he would have to take off or cover the messages in order to vote.
At least 10 states have such a law on the books, and the one struck down Thursday by a 7–2 vote is quite similar to the statute in place in Texas.
Minnesota law prohibits voters from wearing a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia or about the polling place” on election days; a similar prohibition in Texas says “a person may not wear a badge, insignia, emblem, or other similar communicative device relating to a candidate, measure, or political party appearing on the ballot, or to the conduct of the election.”
The high court said Thursday that Minnesota’s law was too broad to be reasonably enforced, even though maintaining order at polling places is a “permissible objective.”
“A rule whose fair enforcement requires an election judge to maintain a mental index of the platforms and positions of every candidate and party on the ballot is not reasonable,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
In recent years, several Texans have run afoul of the state’s law. In Williamson County in 2012, a woman was told she had to change out of or cover up her “Vote the Bible” shirt in order to vote. In 2016, a San Antonio man was held at the Comal County Jail in New Braunfels on electioneering charges because he wore a T-shirt and hat supporting Donald Trump. He took off the hat but would not remove his “Basket of Deplorables” T-shirt, leading to his arrest.
Central to the case was the question of what, exactly, constitutes political messaging. At oral arguments, justices struggled to draw the line between what would be permissible and what would not be — a T-shirt with a rainbow flag? A hat flashing #MeToo? In Texas, election judges at polling places have the power to decide whether a garment or accessory violates the anti-electioneering law.