Saturday, October 04, 2008

GOP, Democrats battle in Pa. over voter dress code

Do the Pennsylvania GOP leaders think their voters are spineless wimps who aren't very committed?

By MARTHA RAFFAELE, Associated Press Writer
1 hour, 57 minutes ago

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Sue Nace thought election volunteers were joking when they told her she would have to remove her T-shirt to vote in the presidential primary last spring.

But it was no laughing matter to the poll workers-turned-fashion police, who said Nace's Obama shirt was inappropriate electioneering — and made her cover the writing before casting a ballot.

Now, a political fight over what voters can wear to the polls is headed to court in Pennsylvania — with the Republican Party favoring a dress code and Democrats opposed.

To the GOP, the lack of rules could open the door to all kinds of questionable displays — even, one Republican leader suggested, something as outlandish as a musical hat.

To the Democrats, voters should be free to express themselves. They fear a dress code could scare away some new voters.

The political showdown was triggered by a Pennsylvania Department of State memo advising counties last month that voters' attire doesn't matter as long as the "voter takes no additional action to attempt to influence other voters."

Because the memo is not legally binding, some counties have kept past restrictions on clothing and political buttons.

But two Pittsburgh-area elections officials sued to have the memo rescinded. Their lawsuit warned that if the memo stands, "nothing would prevent a partisan group from synchronizing a battalion of like-minded individuals ... to descend on a polling place, presenting a domineering, united front, certain to dissuade the average citizen who may privately hold different beliefs."

This fight over the interpretation of a state law designed to shield the polls from partisan electioneering could determine which presidential candidate's supporters might be turned away from the polls in this battleground state.

Democrats have benefited from a surge in voter registration this year, with young adults 18-24 making up the largest group of new registrants, according to statistics from March 30 to Sept. 8. A poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University showed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama pulling 15 percentage points ahead of Republican John McCain in the state.

State Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney said GOP support for the dress code is a partisan effort to scare away new voters.

"To go (to the polls) and engage in an expression of democracy and then be accosted by the fashion police is a form of voter intimidation," he said.

The state Republican Party says Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's administration crafted a partisan memo that would open the door to abuses.

"The first thing would be a button or a shirt, and maybe the next thing would be a musical hat," said GOP chairman Robert Gleason, who called a news conference in support of dress codes.

Douglas Hill, head of Pennsylvania's association of county commissioners, believes the state's 67 counties are now evenly split on the question. Before the memo, counties leaned toward banning politically polarizing clothing and buttons because "they didn't want to get into fine-line disputes," he said.

Nace, a 44-year-old Obama supporter, hopes the state's recommendation will stand so she can vote Nov. 4 while wearing her political leanings on her sleeve.

"Especially with this election, for some reason it feels very personal to me," she said. "Even when I see another car with a bumper sticker on it, it's like, 'Yeah, they get it.'"

During the April 22 primary, Nace was allowed into the voting booth in York County only after she rolled up her Obama T-shirt to hide the writing. After the state memo came out, York County rescinded its ban.

At least four states — Maine, Montana, Vermont and Kansas_ explicitly prohibit wearing campaign buttons, stickers and badges inside polling places, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and state officials.

In Kentucky, elections officials last month told poll workers they should admit voters decked out in campaign apparel, after e-mails circulated warning that Obama supporters would be turned away if they wore shirts and pins.

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