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Supreme Court throws out Minnesota voter attire law

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Stockton voters
Voters fill the booths voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, at the Stockton Community Center in Stockton, Minn.
Andrew Link for Winona Daily News via AP 2012

Updated: 3:30 p.m. | Posted: 9:13 a.m.

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Minnesota's broad restrictions on voters wearing "political" hats, T-shirts and pins to the polls, but said states can place limits on such apparel.

Minnesota contended the restrictions were reasonable, kept order at polling places and prevented voter intimidation. But the justices, in a 7-2 ruling, said the state's limits on political clothing violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

The case dates back to 2010 when Andy Cilek wore a tea party patriots T-shirt when he went to vote. An election official told him he could not vote unless he removed the shirt or covered it up because state law prohibits clothing promoting a candidate or a group with recognizable political views.

Andy Celik
Andy Cilek speaks following a Supreme Court decision to strike down Minnesota's voter clothing law.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Cilek, the executive director of the election watchdog group Minnesota Voters Alliance, challenged that in a lawsuit. It was about more than T-shirts and buttons, he said, it was about election officials abusing their power.

"The Supreme Court opinion today is a big victory for those of us who believe in the Constitution, the rule of law and holding public officials and public servants accountable," Cilek said. 

Cilek contends that Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, the defendant in the lawsuit, tried to suppress conservative speech through a biased implementation of the state law. Mansky sent a memo to election judges detailing potential apparel violations, but he rejected Cilek's allegations.

"None of that is true. My duty as an election official is to implement the state election law, and of course part of that is this law where the Legislature has instructed me to make sure that political material is not displayed in our polling place," he said. 

Most states have restrictions on what voters can wear when voting, but the court noted that those laws are more narrowly crafted than Minnesota's.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "if a state wishes to set its polling places apart as areas free of partisan discord, it must employ a more discernible approach than the one Minnesota has offered here," adding that Minnesota "has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application."

Daniel Rogan, who defended Minnesota's law before the justices, said that while he was disappointed by the justices' conclusion, there was a lot in the opinion "we're very pleased about."

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he believes the court has provided the state with needed clarity. He said he wants the Legislature to change the law so that it is entirely consistent with the decision.    

"What he was saying was in essence that something that is explicitly associated with a candidate or a political party that's on the ballot in that contest, it's OK to limit expression that contains those things. But most other things it's probably not okay," he said.  

Simon said he's not sure if the ruling will result in more political expression at polling places this year.

Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, said she's concerned about the potential for voter intimidation.

"It is a concern for this election season. It's a hot time, right? So, we want to make sure the system is set up to be as strong as it can be to keep voters feeling like they can go to the polls and freely cast their vote without undue influence," Witte said.

The prospects for a special session to address this issue before the August 14 primary or the November 6 general election appear unlikely. Gov. Mark Dayton repeated Thursday that he has no plans to call lawmakers back to St. Paul for any reason.

Cilek's attorney, Erick Kaardal, said the decision will impact more states than Minnesota. 

"In all the other states that it's been reported on, that people have been stopped for wearing political apparel and lawsuits were filed, they were quickly settled. For some reason our government was much more obstinate. I gave them plenty of opportunities to settle the case," he said. "My God, it's been eight years. They could have changed the policy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.