On a warm morning in August, Lake High School Principal Lee Herman didn’t think twice about what to wear to work. He put on his standard Lake Flyers polo and stopped to vote on his way to school.
When he got in line at his polling place to cast a vote on the Lake Local Schools levy, though, he was told he’d have to take off his shirt, turn it inside out, or cover it up. He couldn’t vote with it on.
It was that “or else” that bothered him. He contacted the Wood County Board of Elections to report what had happened, and the board stood by the poll workers.
“I didn’t like that decision so then I called the Secretary of State’s office and explained my situation and concerns and how that may or may not affect people’s right to vote,” he said. “The Secretary of State said the rule was misapplied and just by wearing a shirt that said ‘Lake’ does not by itself constitute supporting or not supporting a campaign.”
Wood County elections officials have since clarified the issue for its 400 or so poll workers preparing for Tuesday's election. Voters may wear school spirit shirts, but not shirts that with messages that directly promote or oppose an issue or candidate.
“They did go over that and highlight that in our training to make sure everybody understood what the rules were so that hopefully we can head off having any issues on that topic,” said Terry Burton, director of the Wood County Board of Elections.
Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jon Husted, said the what-to-wear-to-the-polls rule is pretty straightforward in Ohio.
“Something that says, ‘Support our schools. Vote yes on Issue 2’ is different than wearing a varsity jacket. Typically, there’s no issue with that,” Mr. McClellan said. “The Ohio Revised Code just says there will not be any electioneering within a polling place.”
He said that means no shirts, buttons, or stickers with President Obama’s likeness or “Vote for Romney” message.
“I think if a voter is going to put something on and they have a question of whether it would be appropriate, just don’t wear it,” Mr. McClellan said. “Or, if you really want to wear it and you have questions, pick up the phone and give your board of elections a call.”
Mr. Burton said both sides of any issue or candidate benefit from a neutral polling place.
“I think that if everyone can kind of show a mutual respect … and try to keep the polling place like they would want it, then we’d be fine,” he said. “If people go the other way and try to push the envelope, it’s just going to cause unfortunate complications that aren’t really neccesary.”
Wood County’s poll worker manual – a booklet that lays out workers’ duties and responsibilities – includes a section on “electioneering” at the polling place. It says, in part, “Candidates, campaign workers and other persons entering the polling place must remove or cover all campaign garb and paraphernalia before entering. A voter who refuses to remove or cover up campaign garb or paraphernalia must be allowed to vote, if the voter is entitled to do so. However you must report any such incident to the board of elections.”
While Mr. Herman ultimately took his shirt off – he had a T-shirt on underneath – it bothered him to be threatened with the possibility of not being able to vote.
“Both Wood County and the Secretary of State’s Office indicated this is kind of a gray area,” he said. “I suppose to some extent they’re right. It’s hard to say specifically what constitutes campaigning. What is not a gray area, though, is whether I should be denied the right to vote. I didn’t find anywhere that said an eligible voter should be denied the right to vote.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.