politics

Supreme Court Voids Law Banning Political Apparel at Polls

Updated on
  • Court votes 7-2 to strike down Minnesota polling-place law
  • Ruling doesn’t question bans on candidate-specific items

A "Make America Great Again" hat sits on the ground ahead of a speech by President Donald Trump during a rally in Washington, Michigan, on April 28, 2018.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Minnesota law that barred voters from wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, #metoo T-shirts, and other political apparel at polling places.

The 7-2 ruling on Thursday said Minnesota’s law was so broadly worded that it couldn’t be applied in a consistent way to comply with the Constitution’s First Amendment. Minnesota had justified its century-old ban as a way to preserve decorum and reduce the risk that voters would feel intimidated or pressured.

“Minnesota has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying they would have asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to clarify what the state’s law covered.

Minnesota was one of about 10 states with broad prohibitions on political apparel at election sites. The court didn’t call into question more specific bans in other states covering apparel that supports or opposes a candidate or issue on the ballot.

The Supreme Court in 1992 upheld a Tennessee law that barred campaign materials promoting a specific candidate or party within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling place. That law didn’t mention more general political items.

Minnesota’s law barred a “political badge, political button or other political insignia” inside the election site. If someone was wearing prohibited attire, election officials would ask the person to remove or cover the item. A voter who refused could still cast a ballot, but officials would record the person’s name, and the voter could be subject to a fine or even criminal prosecution.

Roberts said Minnesota hadn’t done enough to clarify what was covered by the law. He pointed to guidelines that bar “issue-oriented material designed to influence or impact voting.”

“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,” Roberts wrote.

“Would a ‘Support Our Troops’ shirt be banned, if one of the candidates or parties had expressed a view on military funding or aid for veterans? What about a ‘#MeToo’ shirt, referencing the movement to increase awareness of sexual harassment and assault?”

Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the court could have answered those types of questions by asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to weigh in. That step “likely would obviate the hypothetical line-drawing problems that form the basis of the court’s decision today,” she wrote.

The challengers to the Minnesota law included Andrew Cilek, a man who wore a Tea Party Patriots T-shirt and a “Please I.D. Me” button when he went to the polls in 2010 in Hennepin County, Minnesota.

The case is Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, 16-1435.

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