Court considers politicking near Minn. polling places

Dan McGrath
Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, wore a "Please I.D. Me" button outside the federal courthouse in Minneapolis on Nov. 1, 2010. McGrath's organization filed a lawsuit when he was told to remove the button.
MPR File Photo/Laura Yuen

A federal appeals court in St. Paul is considering whether clothing bearing political slogans should be allowed in Minnesota polling places.

State law currently bans politicking within 100 feet of a voting site. In 2010, a group of conservative activists defied that law and wore tea party T-shirts and buttons that said "Please I.D. Me" when they showed up to vote. The slogan refers to a a Republican-backed proposal that would require Minnesotans to show photo identification to vote.

Activists affiliated with the group Minnesota Majority claim their free speech rights were violated when election officials told them to remove the buttons and cover the T-shirts.

"I went into the polling place with a button on. I was told to remove it. I said, 'I don't have to do that. I believe that I'm within my rights.' And they took my name down and said I was going to be referred for potential criminal investigation," said Minnesota Majority Executive Director Dan McGrath. "That's voter intimidation. They're intimidating me because of my viewpoint."

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McGrath said he was never actually charged with a crime. Political "soliciting" near a polling site is a petty misdemeanor under state law.

The group is appealing a 2011 federal district court ruling that upheld the law's constitutionality.

"The idea really is to give a safe place for people to get in and just vote, not have to worry about their neighbors trying to convince them while they're in line that they should vote a particular way," said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Dan Rogan, who argued in favor of the law. "That's to happen in the neighborhood, outside of the polling place, not in the polling place."

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar law banning campaign lawn signs near polling places in Tennessee.

"If they can ban a sign 100 feet away, surely they can ban a shirt in the middle of the polling place," Judge Duane Benton said during Tuesday's oral arguments.

Erick Kaardal, an attorney representing Minnesota Majority, countered that a shirt on someone's back could be considered more personal than a sign on their lawn. He also argued that state and local election officials have interpreted the law too broadly, banning not just candidates' campaign materials but apparel bearing all kinds of political messages. That makes the law too vague and subject to arbitrary enforcement by election officials.

Arguing in favor of the law, Rogan said it applies equally to all groups. He told the judges that shirts sporting the logos of the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO would be held to the same standard.

"That's a heck of a dress code you've got going," Judge Benton said.