Two Texas laws imposing a dress code on voters – and giving election workers a virtually unlimited right to bully those who wore clothes they did not like – have been struck down by a federal court.
The Pacific Legal Foundation said the laws “criminalized ‘electioneering’ in or near a polling place.”
But the state defined that as wearing apparel related to any past, present, or future candidate, political party, or ballot measure.
“The laws gave thousands of election workers across the state unbridled discretion to confront any voter wearing a T-shirt, hat, or button that they deemed ‘electioneering,’” the PLF said.
“This is an important win for Texans’ free speech rights,” said PLF attorney Wen Fa. “The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to express beliefs, regardless of whether others agree with those beliefs. An individual’s right to self-expression does not end at the polling place.”
The fight dates back to the 2018 elections, when an election judge gave plaintiff Jillian Ostrewich an ultimatum, to turn her T-shirt, that said “Houston Firefighters,” inside out or stay away from the polling location.
“I’m pleased with the Court’s opinion, which strengthens the free speech rights of voters in Texas.” said Ostrewich. “It is just a T-shirt. The government should have no business dictating what I wear when I go to vote.”
The court did affirm a narrower rule that is intended to apply to poll worker name badges. It prohibits references to candidates, parties and measures on those articles.
The case contended the state’s “arbitrary and erratic enforcement” was a problem.
PLF said election officials “in the various counties are allowed to make on-the-spot judgments about which messages can be allowed in the polling places and which messages must be covered up.”
“Unsurprisingly, election officials wielding this vast power have made headlines in each of the past three election cycles: harassing voters for voting in everything from an Alaska souvenir T-shirt to T-shirts that said ‘Vote the Bible’ or ‘Deplorables,’” PLF said.
“The right to political expression is fundamental, and a law that bans such expression on Election Day makes no more sense than a law that bans people from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ on December 25. Voters shouldn’t be prosecuted for wearing a T-shirt – especially so when enforcement of the law is based on an election official’s whims.”
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