There are a lot of questions floating around the election: how long the process to declare a winner will take, when mail-in ballots need to be postmarked by to count and whether you can carry a gun to your polling place (really), to name a few. It’s not even clear what exactly each states’ rules are surrounding what you can and cannot wear to cast your vote.
“It’s … inconsistent,” Josh Pasek, associate professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, told HuffPost on Wednesday about a list put out by the National Association of Secretaries of State. “You look at the various rules in different states and they’re all interpreted differently, at the discretion of people working the polls, so they can be variable. There are guidelines to differing extents, but how well they’re enforced and who actually does the enforcing is a good question.”
That means depending on which polling location you end up at, you may not face any consequences at all, where at a different location you might be asked to cover up, change shirts or even leave the premises.
“I think in most cases it would be a misdemeanor, in the case of someone wanting to press charges,” Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the Center for Political Studies, also at the University of Michigan, told HuffPost. “I think the first thing they would do is tell you to stop and/or go away. But if a person persisted or argued and for some reason additional action had to be taken, they could press charges.”
Electioneering, or wearing and/or carrying anything to the polls intended to influence a voter to choose a specific candidate, is largely prohibited. But rules vary from state to state, and the inconsistencies create confusion and loopholes. For example, there’s the “Make America Great Again” hat, which is ubiquitous with Trump, despite not mentioning him by name.
“New York apparently just issued a statement saying the MAGA hat would probably be OK in New York state, since it does not directly advocate for a candidate,” Pasek said. “In other places, anything that implies an issue or candidate is verboten. If you can’t tell what the hat means, you’re definitely missing something.”
Then there are statements you are permitted to make, despite efforts to stop them, Traugott said.
“There have been issues just in the past few weeks about people going to vote early wearing a shirt that says Black Lives Matter, for example,” he said. “That is not a partisan issue. There was an attempt to stop people or turn them away from voting, but it’s protected by First Amendment speech. So whether it’s a Black Lives Matter shirt, or, say, a statement about climate change or some other policy issue, that would be permitted.”
“If you show up on Election Day wearing the wrong thing and someone calls you on it and says you can’t be in this area, that could functionally undermine your right to vote. So it’s not a minor risk.”
– Josh Pasek, associate professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan
Both Pasek and Traugott also pointed to issues like the one happening in their state surrounding open carrying laws, pointing out the issue of potential intimidation having influence in the same way electioneering might.
“The first issue would be whether someone would approach a polling place, see an armed person and then walk away rather than casting their ballot,” Traugott said.
If you do end up wearing something to the polls that is prohibited, the repercussions will vary. “In many states, you just have to cover it up, meaning you put your hand over the logo,” Pasek said. “In other places, it’s like you’re back in high school, ‘Go turn your shirt inside out.’ It is wildly inconsistent from state to state.”
As a rule of thumb, if you have questions over whether your outfit is permitted or not, Pasek recommends coming up with an action plan.
“At the minimum, anyone who wants to wear something that could seem campaign-relevant should bring a jacket or a layer that does not have anything like that to put on over it,” he said.
While the notion of remaining sartorially neutral may seem obvious, Pasek pointed out the importance of spreading awareness and that the consequence could be more than just being called out.
“I think it’s a big deal, actually, especially when things are as polarized as they are right now,” he said. “If you’ve been wearing your MAGA hat for four months straight, you’re going to want to keep wearing it to the polls, and maybe only find out it’s not legal when you get there. If you show up on Election Day wearing the wrong thing and someone calls you on it and says you can’t be in this area, that could functionally undermine your right to vote. So it’s not a minor risk.”
At a basic level, Traugott said, it’s also a matter of our privacy and right to vote without worry of interference or outside influence.
“It’s the simple matter of respect for our neighbors,” he said. “The laws are concerned about undue influence, but it’s also a matter of respect for people around you. These laws historically go back to the point when, for example, members of a party could be stationed outside a polling place actually handing out ballots or instructions on how to vote. So the purpose of these laws is to guarantee privacy and the ability to express their own opinion without influence.”
To see the full (albeit vague) list of electioneering laws by state from the National Association of Secretaries of State, click here.
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