There Are Laws About What You Can Wear to Vote
You’ve registered to vote, researched the candidates and ballot measures that matter to you, looked up your polling place and made a plan to get there on November 6. Ready to vote? Not quite. There’s one last pre-ballot item to check off your Election Day to-do list: Deciding what to wear.
What you wear to the polls might matter — and not just for nailing your #IVoted sticker selfie. Most states ban electioneering (a.k.a. campaigning) within a certain radius of a polling place and, depending on where you live, that can include simply wearing political garb like buttons, T-shirts and hats emblazoned with your fave candidate’s name or political party of choice. The rationale behind deputizing polling officials as political fashion police? To let you, and everyone around you, vote in peace.
“The basic idea is that once you enter the polling place, it’s this sacred place where you can find Nirvana and vote for your representative, free from voter pressure or intimidation or confusion,” explains Jessica Levinson, a professor and expert on elections and politics at Loyola Law School. Creating that voting “oasis,” Levinson adds, can include banning voters from sporting “the equivalent of a lawn sign” within a sightline of your neighbors casting a ballot.
So what can — or more pressingly, can’t — you wear to vote? The rules vary by state, so step one is to check the laws where you live. Laws in 10 states explicitly restrict apparel advocating for a candidate, issue or party. (California, Delaware, Kansas, Montana, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont: That means you.) Do you live in Iowa? Feel free to sport your “This Fight Is Personal” T-shirt for House hopeful Abby Finkenauer. But if you’re voting in Texas, you’ll want to leave your “Beto for Senate” button at home (or slip it in your bag before picking up your ballot). For your state’s breakdown, check the website for your Secretary of State or call your local registrar’s office.
Generally speaking, states that do restrict apparel at the polls focus on items that advocate for or against a specific candidate, issue or party on the ballot.
But what about less specific political sartorial statements? Are slogans associated with a movement or party — think red MAGA hats or #RESIST regalia — okay? Can you throw on a pink pussy cap to keep your ears warm as you head to vote on a chilly election evening?
Unfortunately, that’s where the legal lines get blurrier. The short answer is, enforcement is probably going to vary based on where you live and vote. Clothing that’s stylistically symbolic without stating the obvious is likely to get a pass — think a red dress to show off your GOP pride or the sea of suffragette white pantsuits you saw out and about on Election Day back in 2016. And who could possibly object to this sadly sold-out shirt from salad chain Sweetgreen in support of fresh cheese?
If you want to wear generally political garb, the law is probably on your side. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court deemed a Minnesota law that effectively banned all political-themed apparel from polling places too vague. In that case, election officials turned away a voter who showed up wearing a Tea Party logo and a “Please I.D. Me” pin — messages affiliated with conservative movements. During the oral arguments, attorneys and associate justices tangled over whether #MeToo or rainbow logos would be allowed under the law (the lawyers for the state argued that it would depend on what’s on the ballot). In the end, the Supreme Court said Minnesota’s rule was too broad and difficult to enforce. But experts say the ruling fell short of identifying a bright line for what states can and can’t ban.
Levinson and other experts warn that what the ruling means in reality may vary based on local election official interpretations. A “Nasty Woman” tote could be generic enough to get by (and you can always flip it inside out if it’s not), while a more explicit “Women Can Stop Trump” T-shirt might present more of a problem. “Enforcement is block by block,” Levinson says.
Then again, you could just go for it, and risk making an example of yourself. “You can go ahead and wear your, ‘I support unicorns’ T-shirt and they may give you a hard time and you can fight it,” Emerson J. Sykes, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union says. “If you’re not looking to necessarily be the lead plaintiff [in a First Amendment case], bringing alternative apparel is probably a safe bet.” To that end, experts agree clothing that promotes voting or civic participation in general is almost certainly in the clear. So, if you spent the weekend puff-painting “voting is sexy” on a beanie, it wasn’t for naught.
If you do encounter trouble at the polls based on your outfit and believe you’re being unfairly denied the right to vote, call the Election Protection Hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) or the the Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline (800-253-3931). If that’s not your style, you can bring along a sweatshirt to cover your donkey tie or elephant tank or sidestep the issue altogether by saving your political gear for the election night party.
One surefire solution for avoiding style-related snags while doing your civic duty? Vote early or by mail if that’s something your state allows. You can make sure you get your vote in and wear whatever you damn well please — now that’s Democracy in action.