Supreme Court Strikes Down Minnesota Law Restricting What Voters Can Wear to Polls

June 14, 2018 07:08 PM

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Minnesota law that barred voters in the state from wearing a wide range of political hats, T-shirts and pins to the polls.

Minnesota had defended its law as a reasonable restriction that keeps order at polling places and prevents voter intimidation. But the justices ruled 7-2 that the state's law is too broad, violating the free speech clause of the First Amendment.


RELATED: Supreme Court Hearing Minnesota Polling Place Apparel Case

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."

"This is all about political motivation and political exploitation of a statute that was overly broad," said Andy Cilek, one of the plaintiffs in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky.

He was barred from casting a vote in 2010 while wearing a shirt with a political message.

"A case that stemmed from a policy that came down from Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky targeting, specifically targeting, people he didn't like....and that is people that had Tea Party apparel," Cilek said at a news conference after the ruling was issued.

"Now why he did it, you'd have to ask him."

So we did. Mansky denies any political motivation.

"Not at all," Mansky said in an interview outside his Ramsey County Elections office. "What we are doing is we are trying to implement the state law as it is written. We can't ignore the law even if the law is written vaguely. We have to do our best to implement it."

Most states have laws restricting what voters can wear when they cast ballots, but Minnesota's law was one of the broadest. It barred voters from casting a ballot while wearing clothing with the name of a candidate or political party.

Also not allowed: clothing that references an issue on the ballot or promotes a group with recognizable political views. A National Rifle Association T-shirt or shirt with the text of the Second Amendment wouldn't be allowed, for example, according to the lawyer who argued the case for the state.

Roberts noted that Minnesota, like other states, had sought to balance a voter's ability to "engage in political discourse" with the ability to "exercise his civic duty in a setting removed from the clamor and din of electioneering."

"While that choice is generally worthy of our respect, Minnesota has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application," he wrote.

Cilek's attorney, Erick Kaardal, said it's a First Amendment victory for people of any political stripe.

"Everyone in Minnesota wins because regardless of what they wear, if it has a political statement, they're not going to be told by an election official you can't vote because you're wearing that," Kaardal said at the news conference alongside Cilek and another plaintiff, Sue Jeffers.

It is unclear exactly how many states could be impacted by the ruling beyond Minnesota. Both Minnesota and the group challenging the state's law had said there are about 10 states with laws like Minnesota's.

Though they disagreed significantly on which ones — agreeing only on Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Vermont.

The case before the Supreme Court dates back to 2010 and involves a dispute that began over tea party T-shirts and buttons with the words "Please I.D. Me," a reference to legislation then under discussion in Minnesota that would have required residents to show photo identification to vote.

The legislation ultimately didn't become law.

Pointing to the state's statute, Minnesota officials said before the election that neither the tea party T-shirts nor those buttons would be permitted at the polls.

In response, a group of voters and organizations sued.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said the law will stay on the books for now, but he will issue new guidance for election judges across the state.

"Something that's explicitly associated with a candidate or a political party that's on the's okay to limit expression that contains those things, but most other things it's probably not okay," Simon said at a news conference in his office.

In other words, you still won't be able to wear shirts or hats or buttons that promote a specific candidate or political party. However, messages about cutting taxes or promoting gun control legislation might be okay.

The Supreme Court has previously backed some restrictions on voters' free speech rights at the polls.

In 1992, the court upheld a Tennessee statute prohibiting the display or distribution of campaign materials within 100 feet of a polling place.

The Associated Press contributed to this story


Tom Hauser

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