The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Minnesota went too far in banning all political buttons and apparel at polling stations, but said more limited electioneering restrictions most other states enforce are acceptable.
For more than a century, Minnesota has banned buttons, badges or anything else bearing “political insignia” from its polling stations. The law wasn’t challenged, however, until the 2010 election, when conservative activists sued after poll workers objected to them entering with “Please I.D. Me” buttons and a Tea Party Patriots shirt.
The court, voting 7-to-2, sided with the activists. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the law gave poll workers too much leeway to decide which messages could be displayed within the voting area, rather than failing for limiting political speech.
Minnesota’s lawyers said the restriction was limited to messages aimed at a voter’s “electoral choices,” and said their rules followed precedent affirming state authority to prohibit campaigning adjacent to polling stations.
Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion recited a critical sequence from the February oral argument where the state’s lawyer, given examples by Justice Samuel Alito, all but proved the arbitrary nature of that definition, demonstrating that oral arguments can influence the court’s opinions.
“A shirt declaring ‘All Lives Matter,’ we are told, could be ‘perceived’ as political. How about a shirt bearing the name of the National Rifle Association? Definitely out. That said, a shirt displaying a rainbow flag could be worn ‘unless there was an issue on the ballot’ that ‘related somehow…to gay rights.’”
And: “A shirt simply displaying the text of the Second Amendment? Prohibited. But a shirt with the text of the First Amendment? ‘It would be allowed.’”
Chief Justice Roberts said “the unmoored use of the term ‘political’ in the Minnesota law” was too much.
While poll workers—often temporary employees who staff their stations for long hours and low pay—doubtless try hard and are entitled to some discretion, they “must be guided by objective, workable standards,” he wrote.
He was joined by Justice Alito and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.
Otherwise, a poll worker’s “own politics may shape his views on what counts as ‘political,’” the chief justice wrote. “And if voters experience or witness episodes of unfair or inconsistent enforcement,” public confidence in elections could diminish, he added.
In a mild dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, didn’t defend the Minnesota law. But she said that rather than strike the law outright, the court should have heeded the state’s suggestion and asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to specify what “political” meant under the statute.
While Minnesota’s vague definition of “political” failed the court’s test, more broadly Thursday’s decision endorsed the rationale for keeping polling stations free from political rancor.
Recalling the rough and tumble nature of early American elections, when “crowds would gather to heckle and harass voters who appeared to be supporting the other side,” the chief justice said states in the late 19th century understandably began seeking ways to improve the voting experience, such as the secret ballot and curbs on electioneering at the polls.
“Casting a vote is a weighty civic act, akin to a jury’s return of a verdict, or a representative’s vote on a piece of legislation,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “It is a time for choosing, not campaigning.”
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