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New law bans N.H. voters from wearing campaign pins, T-shirts at the polls



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The secretary of state’s office is suggesting moderators have a poncho on hand for Election Day, and not to protect against the weather.

A new state law prohibits people from wearing campaign pins, stickers or clothing inside polling places. Offenders could face a fine of up to $1,000 under the statute, though it’s not clear how strictly the new measure will be enforced.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan is recommending moderators tell voters wearing campaign shirts at the polls to cover up. That’s where the poncho could come in handy, he said.

“Electioneering in the polling place is not permitted generally,” Scanlan said. “If you have the same design on a campaign sign as you do on a sweatshirt, it’s effectively the same thing.”

The legislation was filed by Republican Rep. Dennis Fields at the secretary of state’s request, and it flew largely under the radar this year.

State law has for years barred candidates or their workers from distributing or posting campaign material inside the polling place. The rules also restrict where people can hold campaign signs outside the building. Scanlan said the new limits on voter clothing codify what’s been happening in practice.

“Moderators generally have asked them to cover up (campaign pins or shirts) or remove it while they are going through the process of voting,” he said. The change prohibits people from wearing pins, stickers or articles of clothing “intended to influence the action of the voter within the building where the election is being held.”

It’s not clear how moderators will enforce the policy – several in the Concord area said they haven’t yet briefed themselves on the new election laws. The change was in effect for the state primary in September, but the general election pulls greater voter turnout.

Some people aren’t happy about the new rule and say it’s a violation of the First Amendment.

“The legislators did a disservice,” said Roy Fanjoy, a Webster resident who heard about the law change at a recent select board meeting. “They don’t want politicking inside, which I agree with, but I think they went overboard.”

Past efforts by the secretary of state’s office to limit outside influence on voters have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts. Most recently, New Hampshire’s law banning people taking pictures of their completed ballots – ballot selfies – was found by a federal appeals court to infringe on First Amendment rights.

But Fields, of Sanbornton, said the new election law is not a freedom of speech issue and is simply meant to stop people from wearing pins, buttons and shirts that could sway or intimidate voters. 

At least a handful of other states, including Texas and Maryland, have similar bans on campaign clothing at the voting booth. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an eletioneering ban at and 100-feet around polling places.

Those who refuse to cover up a campaign shirt or remove a sticker shouldn’t be turned away on Election Day, Scanlan said. But a moderator can report them to the attorney general’s office.

The attorney general’s office is aware of the statute and expects moderators to act in accordance with the law, said Assistant Attorney General Brian Buonamano. “We would not anticipate needing to turn to civil penalties,” he said.

The new law raises questions about what could be considered a campaign shirt or pin. Moderators will likely use their discretion.

Michael Gfroerer, moderator in Concord’s Ward 5, said his approach has depended on voters’ behavior. Someone wearing a campaign pin who comes in to vote then leaves likely wouldn’t be a problem, he said. But if someone shows up in campaign clothing and then sticks around inside “showing off,” that could be considered politicking.

“We try to be reasonable,” said Gfroerer, who has been a moderator for the past 15 years. “I’ve had no problem with this in the past.”

(This post has been updated to include other states with similar bans. Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)