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Registrars Warn: Ditch Political Tees, Buttons at Polls

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It looks like another bogus e-mail, typed in all caps and warning of dire consequences if its instructions aren't followed. But unlike the Nigerian prince scams, the latest oft-forwarded message warns of wearing political apparel to the polls Nov. 4.


In the run-up to the historic election, the e-mails are largely directed at supporters of Sen. Barack Obama, warning them not to wear “Obama shirts, pins or hats” for fear of being turned away from the polls.


“I think that's good advice,” says Lawrence C. Haake III, Chesterfield County registrar. “We would ask them cover it, put a coat on, do something so it's not obvious. It wouldn't be a smart thing to do.”


Henrico County officials concur. Richmond General Registrar Kirk Showalter agrees it would be best to ditch the political clothing, but plays down the consequences.
“Officially, wearing buttons or T-shirts is not allowed inside the polling place, but buttons can be removed, shirts can be covered or turned inside-out,” Showalter says. “We're not going to use it as an excuse for keeping anyone from voting.”


State law requires a neutral zone of 40 feet from the door of the polling place be free of electioneering. That would include, according to the state elections board, political buttons, hats and T-shirts.


Not everyone agrees on the law's intent, however.  


Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, questions whether election officials should be telling voters what they can't wear to the polls. He believes there is a legal difference between campaigning at a polling place and waiting in line while wearing clothing that endorses a particular candidate.


“You have the right to wear a button or a T-shirt expressing your opinion on a particular candidate or issue,” Willis says. “We believe electioneering is handing someone literature or [expressly] asking them to vote for your candidate.”


Willis says the ACLU is ready to help anyone who is denied the right to vote for wearing a political button or T-shirt. “We ask anyone who goes into a polling booth in Virginia and has a problem to call us immediately,” he says.


 

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