Voters who insist on wearing politically tinged apparel to the polls on Election Day won't be turned away -- but they could risk being prosecuted.
On Monday, a federal judge in Minneapolis ruled against members of Minnesota conservative groups who want to wear special buttons and clothing as they cast their ballots.
Judge Joan Ericksen said polling places must maintain their sense of calm and decorum, and should be free from any political messages. A coalition calling itself Election Integrity Watch filed the suit last week after learning that some county election officials would not allow voters to wear buttons that read, "Please I.D. me."
The crux of the debate is a simple question: Are such buttons, or tea party t-shirts that say, "Don't tread on me," inherently political? State law prohibits political materials from making their way into the polling place.
But one of the plaintiffs, Dan McGrath of the group Minnesota Majority, doesn't think the tea party movement is, on its face, political.
"I'd say it's a philosophic movement," McGrath said. "They're nonpartisan. There's no Tea Party on the ballot. The T-shirt we're talking about say things like 'liberty.' How is that political?"
McGrath was hoping Judge Joan Ericksen would agree, and issue an emergency order requiring election officials to allow voters to wear the clothing at the polls. But Ericksen said even though the apparel doesn't advocate for a candidate or an issue on the ballot, the materials could be construed as political and disrupt the voting process.
McGrath, speaking outside the courtroom after the roughly three-hour hearing, says the judge's decision could result in inconsistencies at the polls tomorrow.
"Defining 'political' is left to the eyes of the beholder, with the election judges," McGrath said. "So something that is permitted in one precinct could be banned in another precinct, and it could be prosecuted in a different precinct."
McGrath is advising his allies to wear the buttons to the polls. If challenged by an election judge, the voter will then have to make a decision, McGrath said: Take off the button and vote, or vote with it on -- but be aware that you could be eventually charged with a petty misdemeanor.
The "Please I.D. me" buttons are part of a failed effort by McGrath's group for a new law requiring voters to show photo identification. Minnesota Majority has made fraudulent voting one of its core issue since 2008. County attorneys have filed charges in a small fraction of the hundreds of cases the group has asked them to investigate.
Voters who decide to wear tea party t-shirts or "I.D. me" buttons tomorrow will still be allowed to vote, but their names might be turned over to authorities for possible prosecution that could lead to fines of up to $300.
Ramsey and Hennepin County election officials find the buttons inappropriate but are guaranteeing voters who wear them the right to vote. The Secretary of State's office says it will recommend that policy is enforced statewide.
Ramsey County election manager Joe Mansky, one of the defendants in the case, said he thinks most people will comply with requests from election judges to turn their T-shirts inside out or take off their buttons.
"Most voters, in our experience, are pretty good about doing what they're requested to do. And I can't think of a single example of a voter who was asked to cover a button or hat or a T-shirt not doing that," he said.
Mansky said the same rules apply to apparel promoting other groups that the election judges perceive to have a political slant.
An attorney for Hennepin County argued that voters standing in long lines could be confused if they see someone wearing the "Please I.D. me" button, and said the buttons were intended to influence behavior at the polls.
After the hearing, a Pioneer Press reporter raised that point with Ramsey County election judge Sue Jeffers, a self-described tea party member. Jeffers was asked if an 80-year-old grandma might come to the wrong conclusion that photo I.D. was required after seeing buttons in the polling place.
"Is your grandma that dumb?" Jeffers said. "If you've ever been in a polling place, we have greeters at the door, we have people signing you in, we tell you what line to get in. Trust me. Nobody is disenfranchised when it comes to showing up at the polls."
But many officials are worried about voter suppression. Election Integrity Watch, the coalition that includes Minnesota Majority and other groups, has set up a hotline and is offering a $500 reward to people who spot instances of voter fraud that result in convictions.
The group predicts that more than 8,000 poll watchers will be looking for what they consider to be suspicious behaviors, including people telling others how to vote, or buses transporting the same voters to multiple polling locations.
Recent billboards have gone up depicting prisoners in orange jumpsuits, and reminding the public that voter fraud is a felony.
Donna Cassutt, associate chair of the DFL party, said the tactics are deplorable.
"We're seeing the billboards with people in handcuffs, and that's not inviting to people who are new citizens or young people," she said. "It's intended to scare them away."
Election Integrity Watch's case against the election officials will continue in federal court, but the proceedings will have to wait until after the election.