New Hampshire law forbids wearing political clothing at polling places. Hats, t-shirts, or other garments that advocate for or against any candidate, political party, or measure being voted on are prohibited. Now legislators are considering repealing that ban, allowing voters to wear articles of clothing advertising their political beliefs. Some worry this could have unintended consequences, however.
Political clothing in the "Live Free or Die" state
It seems every election season we read at least one story about polling-place drama sparked by political t-shirts. In 2020, one Exeter woman made national headlines by walking into the voting booth topless after election officials said she couldn’t wear a shirt with an anti-Trump message printed on it.
This year, the NH Legislature is considering HB 87, a bill aimed at repealing such restrictions. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Potucek of Derry, was inspired by his own personal experience at the polls; a moderator asked Potucek to remove a pro-Trump hat he was wearing. In his view, this violated his Constitutional right to free speech.
Debating the bill
As it was originally written, HB 87 would have broadly allowed anyone to wear political clothing at voting places without making a distinction between voters themselves and election officials manning the polls. This led the House Election Law committee to amend it, clarifying that election officers, observers, ballot clerks, and the like couldn’t wear clothing that made political advocacy statements—only regular voters would be allowed to do so.
A matter of free speech
Proponents of the legislation, including a majority of the House committee that approved the amended bill, pointed to a 2018 Supreme Court decision in Minnesota that struck down a ban on political clothing at the polls. They say that New Hampshire’s ban on such clothing violates the free speech rights of voters, and that Election Day should be an opportunity to celebrate political beliefs rather than hiding them.
Conflicts with current law
Opponents of HB 87 worry that it will weaken the intent behind the state’s anti-electioneering law, which is to prevent voters from feeling harassed or intimidated at the polls. Writing against HB 87, Rep. Paul Bergeron said, "This bill will embolden campaign activists to congregate inside the polling place, wearing all sorts of campaign paraphernalia in an attempt to influence voters after they have entered the building."
What do you think?
Do you like the idea of being able to wear a t-shirt or hat in support of a candidate or issue position as you step up to the ballot box? Or do you worry that rewriting the current law could invite voter intimidation? Wherever you stand on this issue, you have an opportunity to make your voice heard by attending the upcoming public hearing on March 7 at 1PM in Room 100 at the State House in Concord.
If you can’t attend in person, you can sign in online to share your opinion. Go to the legislature’s homepage (gencourt.state.nh.us) and scroll down to click the link titled, “Senate Remote Sign-in.” Select the date of the hearing (March 7), select the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs committee from the drop-down, and then select the bill (HB 87). The rest of the choices let you share who you are and what your opinion is.