Judge rejects appeal for election gear

A federal judge refused Minnesota Majority's request to allow Tea Party T-shirts and buttons that say "Please I.D. Me" at polls.

The move by Tea Party members in Minnesota to wear buttons and T-shirts into the polling place Tuesday was dealt a legal blow on Monday, but may not be over.

A federal judge refused to side with Minnesota Majority, a conservative group that had asked the judge to allow voters to wear Tea Party T-shirts and buttons that say "Please I.D. Me" to polling places.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen rejected Minnesota Majority's request after a three-hour hearing Monday, and a lawyer for the group said the ruling left the issue to the subjectiveness of local election officials.

Following Ericksen's decision, county officials said that those wearing such buttons and T-shirts will be asked to remove the items or cover them -- but will be allowed to vote regardless. The officials said that such individuals may be referred later to election officials for review and possible action. Hennepin and Ramsey county officials said they will inform their election judges that anyone wearing such gear should be asked to remove them or cover them up.

Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, said: "Tea Partiers right now don't know whether they will be prosecuted if they go into a polling place wearing these."

McGrath said he will wear his button to the polls, but it was unclear how many voters would join him.

In an e-mail to supporters Monday, Minnesota Majority said that "if you are challenged by an election judge because of what you are wearing, you'll have a decision to make ... whatever happens, don't allow yourself to be disenfranchised."

At a news conference last week, the group said that it was suing Hennepin County and Ramsey County election officials and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie over the issue and intended to distribute 5,000 buttons that feature a picture of a watchful eye. It said the gear was no different than union buttons worn by voters at the polls.

A Minnesota Secretary of State tip sheet on polling place "etiquette and prohibitions" said state law "clearly prohibits the displaying of campaign materials at or near all polling locations." State law adds that election officials can wear only a badge that shows their role in the election process, and cannot wear anything that identifies their party affiliation. Other than those voting, no one but an election official or a person conducting exit polling can be within 100 feet of the polling place.

In her ruling Monday, Ericksen said that the buttons and T-shirts qualify as political speech, even if they did not take a position on an issue or candidate on the ballot. She said that such items were likely to disrupt the voting process.

An administrative law judge on Friday dismissed a complaint by Common Cause Minnesota against Minnesota Majority. Common Cause charged that the buttons violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act, which prohibits "political badges, political buttons or other political insignia" from being worn at polling places.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428 Mike Kaszuba • 612-222-1673

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