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What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

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One Comment

  1. N.M. Horwitz says:

    This is an interesting issue. I think the plaintiffs will largely prevail.

    The issue is that the state’s defense is this prevents intimidation, but intimidation is already illegal, and a woman can yell “Prop B or go to hell!” irrespective of whether she dons the firefighter shirt. The idea, though, is that the shirt is taken into consideration for determining where the line is.