WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Don't wear campaign paraphernalia to voting polls on election day Nov. 4 or bring a sweater to cover it up, experts say.
''Whether or not they have a constitutional right to wear [campaign memorabilia] we tell them to leave it at home and avoid the hassle," says Laughlin McDonald, Director of ACLU Voting Right Project. "There is a Supreme Court decision that prohibited campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place so we advise that if they do wear a campaign button that they follow that state's law, unless they are trying to challenge it.''
Barbara Arnwine, executive director for Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, a non-profit legal organization that specializes in election law, agrees. She says that there should be no open endorsement of a candidate because it helps voting sites remain neutral.
But, she says, "There needs to be more uniformity of the law under local and state legislation."
Thousands of voters have received emails and text messages informing them that they may have problems if they show up to the voting booths wearing buttons, stickers and tee shirts with the names of political candidates. In many states, that could be true.
Maryland voter Alpatrick Golphin, 39, thought the email he received was just another unsubstantiated rumor.
"I thought it was a joke like Ashton [Kutcher] was trying to punk me," he said. Golphin has voted in other elections, but this was the first time he's heard anything about this. He may not have heard about not being allowed to wear his candidate's tee shirt to the voting polls because Maryland does not have a dress code per se. But, it still has laws against "electioneering" or campaigning inside a voting poll.
It is a state's decision how to regulate elections so long as the elections are conducted fairly, says Federal Elections Commission spokesperson Bob Biersack. Because there's no federal provision, elections are administered by the states.
Therefore, depending on what voting jurisdiction a citizen resides in, casting a ballot while displaying any campaign affiliations – including names or images on a hat, t-shirt or button - could be classified as passive electioneering, a misdemeanor in some states, depending on how the attire is interpreted by authorities.
The laws are meant to protect elections against voter intimidation and swaying decisions. But the written definition of electioneering is murky in some states. Virginia is a critical swing state in this year's presidential election but its voters aren't the only ones confused about the issue of what constitutes electioneering.
The state's board of elections are even having a hard time interpreting the law in a way that they could definitively inform their voting public.
"Section 24.2-604 of the Code of Virginia creates a 40 foot neutral zone in which campaign material is prohibited but there has been some confusion among the voting population in recent weeks as far as the definition of excessive campaigning at the polling place," the Virginia State Board of Elections said in a statement. "As a result, the State Board of Elections will meet on October 14th to make a ruling on the draft policy."
Such states as Ohio, Tennessee and Texas emphatically ban the display of political buttons, caps, stickers and other like items within 100 feet of polls while they are open.
Kevin Kidder, spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State's Office, says that while there are restrictions against wearing political paraphernalia, the right to vote comes first.
''Voters are not allowed to wear campaign paraphernalia," Kidder said. "We'll ask them to turn it inside out. Put a jacket over it. The right to vote is absolute so you'll be allowed to vote but you can be charged later.''
Other states like Georgia and Florida have laws that are more lax. According to Florida Department of State spokeswoman Jennifer Davis, her state's definition of electioneering is reserved for more obvious campaigning.
"There's no overt soliciting such as handing out campaign material," Davis states. But when asked if there are any restrictions on the wearing of campaign paraphernalia she says, "Absolutely not. You can wear whatever you want. The only restriction is for the people working at the elections all day."
She added, "I can't imagine any restriction on that sort of thing because of free speech concerns."
Some courts don't see it that way.
A 2001 Washington, DC Circuit Court ruled against voter David Marlin, who had taken the DC Board of Elections and Ethics to court for denying his ballot because he wore a sticker supporting a specific mayoral candidate. The court sided with the board citing a Supreme Court ruling that stated that polling places are not a forum to engage in public discourse and such "view-point neutral" laws are a constitutional and necessary means of ensuring orderly election process.
Such laws have sparked widespread debate, even among students.
American University law student Kimberly Tucker published a legal paper entitled "You Can't Wear That to Vote: The Constitutionality of State Laws Prohibiting the Wearing of Political Message Buttons" in 2006 that argued against the restrictions.
''States cannot demonstrate a "compelling state interest" in prohibiting the wearing of political message buttons in the polling place," she wrote. She also argued that the laws are far too broad and that the statutory language often permits "arbitrary enforcement.''
Because of the wide latitude, says Arnwine, the best way is the safe way: "What is correct is that you may have to cover up and expose your Obama tee shirt once you go outside the designated voting zone."