Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Campaign apparel to be allowed in Lanc Co polling places

Campaign shirts, buttons, stickers, and the like will now be permitted to be worn by voters in Lancaster County polling places, according to a unanimous decision made by the elections board on Wednesday.

The previous policy of Lancaster County and other counties in the commonwealth was that such items constituted impermissible "electioneering" under state law, according to Lancaster County Elections Board solicitor Melvin Newcomer.

That all changed on September 4th, however, when, in response to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Pennsylvania Department of State (PA DOS) issued an advisory opinion to county boards of election making a distinction between "passive" and "active" electioneering.

"We believe that if such electioneering remains passive and the voter takes no additional action to attempt to influence other voters in the polling place, then the wearing of clothing or buttons would not constitute not constitute 'electioneering' as that term is used in section 1220(c) of the Pennsylvania Election Code, 25 P.S. 3060(c)," PA DOS Commissioner Chet Harhut wrote in the memo.

The memo noted, "Of primary concern is that no duly registered person be turned away at the polls. If the conduct and apparel of a voter is determined to be more than passive, it should be addressed by the district election officials."

York County also recently changed its policy to allow such apparel in compliance with the memo.

In response, the three-member Lancaster County Board of Elections unanimously approved a policy on Wednesday, which reads, "Voters shall be allowed to wear tee shirts, clothing, buttons, hats, pins, or other apparel with a candidate or political party's name, picture, or emblem inside of the polling place, provided that (i) such items do not involve sound, lights or other active displays of any kind and (ii) the voter takes no further action to influence other voters in the poling place. Apparel may also include references to referendums, retention questions, and other political issues."

But the board was far from enthusiastic about making the policy change. Chairman Terry Kauffman went so far as to say, "I hate this position," opining that it may open the door to increasingly outlandish and offensive displays.

Newcomer and the board made clear that, in light of the PA DOS memo, Lancaster County might be putting itself at risk of constitutional litigation if it did not adopt the policy.

The policy only applies to voters. Election workers and poll watchers are not permitted to wear political apparel or paraphernalia.

Mary Stehman, the Chief Clerk of the Board of Elections, supported the decision to change the policy. She told the board that they should adopt "the path of least resistance" with respect to obstacles to voting.

She suggested that the previous policy against wearing political apparel was inconsistently enforced by judges of elections. If an individual was unable or unwilling to remove a campaign shirt, for example, sometimes they were prevented from voting and sometimes they were permitted to vote.