Diane Wickberg had never really been political. The 55-year-old Flagstaff grandmother was a registered Independent — and not just in name only.

"I just voted for the person who would fit my moral beliefs," she tells me. "If they were Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent, I didn't care — as long as they represented us well."

Then, last year, Wickberg watched in horror as the taxpayers bailed out General Motors. And the banks. And the insurance company for the banks.

When she heard on the radio that a new "tea party" group was forming to fight back, she was curious enough to attend a local get-together.

Today, that group has weekly meetings and an e-mail list of 500, and though there are no officers and no formal organizational structure, Wickberg is one of its most devoted members.

She tells me that the group is not political, not in the strict sense of the word. The Flagstaff tea party, at least, doesn't endorse candidates. It didn't take a stand on Proposition 100, the sales tax that voters approved on May 18. Nor did it weigh in on the municipal elections also on ballots that day.

And that's why it's so bizarre that Wickberg's membership led directly to a problem when she went to vote.

Because her tea party group meets on Tuesdays, Wickberg almost always wears a tea party T-shirt on Tuesdays. On May 18, it was a white one, which the group had ordered for Sarah Palin's visit to Arizona in March. It had a big picture of the Constitution, a little logo saying "We the People" and the phrase "Flagstaff Tea Party — Reclaiming Our Constitution."

"I didn't think twice about it," Wickberg says.

But that day, after meeting with tea party volunteers and just before picking up her grandson from school, Wickberg swung by the Baptist church in her neighborhood to vote.

There, the fashion choice that had seemed so innocuous proved to be anything but. Anxious poll workers told Wickberg she'd have to cover her T-shirt with a jacket if wanted to cast her ballot.

She didn't have a jacket, nor did she have a sweater. Ultimately, because there were no other voters in the polling place at that time, she was permitted to vote. But she was given a warning for the future.

"If you wear that T-shirt next time, you can't vote," the poll worker told her.

You might assume, as I did, that this was an overreaching temp, someone who, given a little power, was all too eager to exercise it.

You would be wrong.

I was.

When Wickberg called the Coconino County Recorder's Office to complain, she was told the worker had behaved appropriately. (As Recorder Candy Owens confirmed to me in a phone interview, she told Wickberg that the tea party has an agenda, so the shirt wasn't okay. She suggested that, in the future, Wickberg should bring a jacket — or cast an early ballot by mail.)

Egged on by her fellow tea party members, Wickberg called the Arizona Secretary of State's Office. There, she was told that it, too, agreed with the decision.

The reason: Arizona law bans "electioneering" within 75 feet of any polling place. Ever notice how volunteers pimping candidates stay outside polling places — and stand behind a line, far away from the doorway? That's due to electioneering restrictions.

The idea, says Owens, is that no one should feel pressured or intimidated inside a polling station.

And it's a good idea. The problem is that, by banning tea party T-shirts, the poll workers in Flagstaff overstepped badly in their enforcement.

Even if J.D. Hayworth doesn't want to admit it, the tea party isn't a political party. It doesn't endorse candidates. While members are conservative, they've made a point of inviting, and hosting, local Democrats on Tuesday evenings. (They even moved their usual meeting to Wednesday one week to accommodate Mayor Sara Presler, a Democrat, since city council meetings are on Tuesdays.)

And while Wickberg acknowledges that she voted "no" on Proposition 100, the sales tax increase on the ballot May 18, her tea party group wasn't the reason.

"We hadn't even talked about it," she says.

But let's say the Flagstaff tea party had taken a hard line against the ballot measure. Let's say it openly campaigned against the sales tax.

In that case, I think the poll workers would still be in the wrong. The electioneering prohibition is meant to ban overt campaigning — "knowingly" attempting to influence votes.

Wickberg's T-shirt wasn't doing that. It didn't mention Proposition 100. It didn't have a word to say about anyone running on that day's mayoral ballot.

And if the standard of electioneering is merely a group that's weighed in on the issues at hand, well, there are a whole lot of groups that eagle-eyed poll workers would have to watch for. The Professional Firefighters of Arizona and the Arizona Education Association both endorsed the sales tax measure. Should their shirts have been banned?

Clint Bolick, an attorney at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based libertarian think tank, believes the poll workers' actions were unconstitutional. Contacted by a tea party member, he fired off a letter to both the secretary of state and the recorder.

Bolick says he has no problem with the electioneering restrictions. But he believes they're being improperly applied in this case. "It's fine to prohibit overtly political activity at polling stations," he says. "But obviously this goes down the path of utter subjectivity."

Bolick had a bit of fun with his letter.

"A number of membership groups, many of which have overtly political arms, took positions on Proposition 100," he writes. "Is it your interpretation of the law that someone wearing an [Arizona Education Association] T-shirt should be excluded, because that organization endorses candidates and vigorously supported Proposition 100? If not, why not? What about the NRA? Sierra Club? Planned Parenthood? The Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce? The PTA?

"How about a depiction of Che Guevara or Ronald Reagan, who were political figures who might signal sympathy with particular candidates or causes?"

As funny as that sounds, Bolick has a point. The First Amendment decrees that the government doesn't get to decide which opinions are good and which need to be silenced. Government workers may find your "Che" shirt appalling: What bureaucrat likes a revolutionary? But they shouldn't be able to restrict you from wearing it.

Obviously, poll workers have to control their stations. We can't have voters being coerced by pro-union goons — or harassed by anti-tax goobers, either. I believe Candy Owens when she says her workers were acting in good faith.

But electioneering rules must be narrowly applied. You can ban T-shirts that openly advocate for a particular candidate or proposition on the ballot — but you simply can't go down the path of trying to decide which groups are okay and which aren't.

The can of worms is too wormy.

And honestly, I don't think it's a coincidence that it was a "tea party" shirt that got blocked. It's fashionable, these days, to sneer at the tea party — and even to fear it a bit.

There's no doubt in my mind that plenty of Flagstaff residents went to the polls in Sierra Club T-shirts. And no one said a word about it. That's because in Flagstaff, being a fan of the Sierra Club is right up there with liking firefighters. It's a given. Being a tea party member is a different cup of, well, tea.

And it's all too easy to let our subconscious biases take over. A group we like has a "cause." A group we disagree with has "an agenda." We don't even realize that our categorization is, itself, a value judgment — and one the government shouldn't be in the business of making.

When I first reported Wickberg's story on our Valley Fever blog last week, some of our readers were quick to pipe up. "Tea Pottiers [sic] do have an agenda," one wrote, "and that agenda is not well embraced."

And that's precisely why we have the First Amendment. Well-embraced agendas don't need its protections. It's the unpopular causes, and the revolutionaries, who do.

Unless the T-shirt ban is enforced across the board — which strikes me as completely impossible — unpopular groups should have just as much of a right to wear their colors as popular ones.

God knows, tea partiers are probably as much a minority in lefty Flagstaff as progressives are in Phoenix.

And if you want the right to wear your grimy old Che T-shirt, well, you'd better fight for Diane Wickberg's right to wear her Sarah Palin-inspired "We the People" one. That's how the First Amendment works.

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24 comments
phpeters87
phpeters87

How about the polling places that had  Obama posters hanging on the walls?

http://mrc-tv.s3.amazonaws.com/sites/default/files/images/119074.jpg?1352224187

Or Obama murals?

http://christiannews.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Mural.jpeg


Or Polling places with Black Panthers outside holding large flashlights during daytime?

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_uA5Us5JcNJw/TG40kN5ITZI/AAAAAAAAAEU/dBn_lzgT3PY/s1600/The_New_Black_Panther_Party_Voting_Poll_Incident.jpg


Yet someone with a Tea Party shirt is a problem?

kimmer
kimmer

I'd be right there with you on this article but for the fact that it (your point) is based entirely upon an assumption (i.e., that workers at the polling place do not uniformly enforce the law because they have allowed others wearing similarly objectionable T-shirts worn by those with more "popular" causes to enter the polling place to vote without asking them to put a sweater or jacket on first)for which you have no supporting evidence. You assume there were Sierra Club members wearing Sierra Club T-shirts or Planned Parenthood promoters wearing Planned Parenthood T-Shirts or Arizona Education Association members wearing a AEA T-shirts who poll workers did not "harrass" by asking them to cover up the writing on their T-shirts. If the point of your story was to suggest that the poll workers unconstitutionally single out those promoting unpopular causes and that discrimination of this type should never occur, shouldn't you have investigated this further and at least asked (and reported the response you received) whether poll workers ever asked AEA T-Shirt wearers to cover their T-shirts when voting on Prop 100? I think it's patently unfair to assume discrimination of some sort took place and accuse others of acting unconstitutionally without at least first doing a thorough investigation to determine if there is any evidence to support your suggestion and accusation of wrong doing. At the very least, I would have expected there to be some information in your article establishing you asked about the existence of such evidence before jumping on your high and mighty and assuming it doesn't exist. Then again, I understand that fair and balanced reporting isn't near as sexy as the assumptions upon which your article is based. I understand your job is to sell papers, not necessarily engage in fair and unbiased reporting of facts. It is what it is. We get it. Too much of it, actually.

roni
roni

no matter what you wear you are still a white supremasist go naked you are stil an az nazi

Joe sixpack
Joe sixpack

Tea party is a political institution. No tea party election ads in the polling place.

If you're willing to have the tea party/Palin shirts you're willing to have the Al Queda/BinLaden tee shirts also.

Keith
Keith

I am not a member of the Tea Party movement. I am registered independent for the same basic reason as Ms Wickberg. I dont support any particular party, or any particular candidate for that matter. If I like what they seem to say at voting time they most likely will get my vote. Overt Liars like John McCain who stand in front of the entire country saying one thing and then turn around the following year and say the exact opposite will never get my vote regardless of what they claim.

I do support the Constitution. For the most part I think it is pretty clearly written and simple to understand. One of the easiest lines to understand is a simple line in the Bill of Rights which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It is pretty clear cut and obvious that this is what was denied Ms Wickberg at the polls. Just as it was denied the Suns fan who was temporarily ejected from a playoff game for wearing a shirt that said Viva Los 1070 when the Suns made the increadibly poor choice to wear the Los Suns jerseys. He had every right to voice his displeasure of their choice and Ms Wickberg not only has the moral right to make a statement saying she supports the constitution but she has a black and white constitutional right to wear a shirt indicating her support of the constitution! This poll watchdog should be removed from the polling place permanently. How dare they question the legality of a shirt proclaiming support of the most precious document in the USA? If they have a problem with the shirt and what it stands for, they certainly have no right what so ever in overseeing something as basic as a constutional activity such as voting. If they are against the constitution they may want to consider relocating to a place that believes it is OK to beat and protest it. Mexico is taking applications for residency I hear. They seem to have run out of people down there. They are all in Arizona.

Patty Hoekstra
Patty Hoekstra

This is a good example of the leftist thinking. We have the right to speak and we should be allowed to wear a shirt that is not political. The tea parties aren't. I too, am a grandma that was unengaged, althouh I do actively vote. Now I am proud to be a tea party member and I am learning SOOOO much about my GREAT COUNRTY and what we are losing. We need to get educated and act at the polls. Don't be afraid of learning whats goin on.

Jim Kennedy
Jim Kennedy

Sorry about the formatting issues. Tried html tags, but they didn't work. Wish there was a preview feature. Upshot is the Supreme Court has held that what the county poll worker did is proper as ensuring the the polls are free of intimidation.

Jim Kennedy
Jim Kennedy

Most of Sara’s contentions have already been presented to the Supreme Court. In Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191, 206, n. 9 (1992), the Court. Electioneering in the polling place can and should be regulated. I have copied the Court’s synopsis below. It is a 5-3 opinion (Thomas recused himself).

[quote] JUSTICE BLACKMUN, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE KENNEDY, concluded that 2-7-111(b) does not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 4-20. (a) The section is a facially content-based restriction on political speech in a public forum, and thus must be subjected to exacting scrutiny: the State must show that the regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. This case presents a particularly difficult reconciliation, since it involves a conflict between the exercise of the right to engage in political discourse and the fundamental right to vote, which is at the heart of this country's democracy. Pp. 4-7. (b) Section 2-7-111(b) advances Tennessee's compelling interests in preventing voter intimidation and election fraud. There is a substantial and long-lived consensus among the 50 States that some restricted zone around polling places is necessary to serve the interest in protecting the right to vote freely and effectively. The real question then is how large a restricted zone is permissible or sufficiently tailored. A State is not required to prove empirically that an election regulation is perfectly tailored to secure such a compelling interest. Rather, legislatures should be permitted to respond to potential deficiencies in the electoral process with foresight, provided that the response is reasonable and [504 U.S. 191, 192] does not significantly impinge on constitutionally protected rights. Munro v. Socialist Workers Party, 479 U.S. 189, 195 -196. Section 2-7-111(b)'s minor geographical limitation does not constitute such a significant impingement. While it is possible that, at some measurable distance from the polls, governmental regulation of vote solicitation could effectively become an impermissible burden on the First Amendment, Tennessee, in establishing its 100-foot boundary, is on the constitutional side of the line. Pp. 7-20. JUSTICE SCALIA concluded that 2-7-111 is constitutional because it is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral regulation of a nonpublic forum. The environs of a polling place, including adjacent streets and sidewalks, have traditionally not been devoted to assembly and debate, and therefore do not constitute a traditional public forum. Cf. Greer v. Spock, 424 U.S. 828 . Thus, speech restrictions such as those in 2-7-111 need not be subjected to "exacting scrutiny" analysis. Pp. 1-4. [/quote]

In addition, I have copied here, the concluding paragraphs of the decision. As you can see, the Court is very concerned about the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The majority opinion said:

[quote] In conclusion, we reaffirm that it is the rare case in which we have held that a law survives strict scrutiny. This, however, is such a rare case. Here, the State, as recognized administrator of elections, has asserted that the exercise of free speech rights conflicts with another fundamental right, the right to cast a ballot in an election free from the taint of intimidation and fraud. A long history, a substantial consensus, and simple common sense show that some restricted zone around polling places is necessary to protect that fundamental right. Given the conflict between these two rights, we hold that requiring solicitors to stand 100 feet from the entrances to polling places does not constitute an unconstitutional compromise.[/quote]

So, despite the fact that the county election workers engaged in some slight intrusion on this voter’s First Amendment rights, her conduct falls into a very narrow area in which those rights can be impinged in order to keep the polling place free of intimidation, the sort of intimidate that leads to election fraud.

JPorter
JPorter

This is interesting. During the May 18th Tax vote I went to vote and saw a person there wearing a Support the Students shirt PUSD. Which to me was someones idea for a last minute "support the students and vote yes on 100" Nothing was said...

Charlie
Charlie

I guess high profile celebrities and politicians that use the media to share their slant have to go to polling places wearing a mask. We wouldn't want to sway the ignorant voters into voting for something they don't really believe with THIS form of manipulation. It just sucks the brain cells out of my head to think some people think voting isn't already the advanced art of manipulation, tea-shirt or no tea-shirt.

po dunk redneck
po dunk redneck

It is amazing that you enlightened liberals don't even have a clue as to what the conversation is about. It is the First Amendment, stupid.

Me
Me

Yeah, this article is intellectually dishonest.

Regardless of whether the local Flagstaff chapter of the Tea Party endorses political candidates, the Tea Party itself DOES have a very clear partisan political agenda and it DOES endorse candidates, to the point where it is nearly synonymous with right-wing flat-earther candidates like Sarah Palin - and it is noteworthy that Wickbergs tee shirt was printed IN HONOR of Palin's visit.

So, get real, yes, this was a political tee shirt and yes, the poll worker acted appropriately.

KeptReading
KeptReading

D.K. - Regarding your statement "Sorry Sarah but there is no way that you can convince me that you’re not one of the “righteous” right-wing conservatives with your own agenda". Have you read Sarah's story on the Mayor of Yuma? Not to say conservatives can't be anti anti-gays, but it might help you take the edge off a little. But really, Ms. Wickberg should have known not to wear such a shirt. It may not have endorsed a specific candidate or prop., but it is obviously pushing the boundries. You'd think as a grandmother she would have learned "it's better to be on the safe side" by now. I'm younger and have taken part in far fewer elections, but even I know to leave my "blow baby blow" shirt at home when I go out to vote. Although she was still allowed to vote, it's good to hear the rules are being enforced in our red(neck) state. I'm surprised the poll workers didn't let her vote twice!

D.K..
D.K..

Next year Sarah will be complaining that she can’t bring her gun with her to the polling booth (I’m sure her pal BytRider would join her). Sorry Sarah but there is no way that you can convince me that you’re not one of the “righteous” right-wing conservatives with your own agenda.

Crow
Crow

Sarah,You really suck as a reporter. Why don't you at least show us the shirt instead of a spilled cup of tea?

Also, its always been that you can't wear political shirts at the polls. Everyone knows that except Grandma and Sarah. Now the Teas Baggers want to call it a socialist plot? Get a clue Sarah. FOX News isn't hiring.

Ash
Ash

Why is a tea party shirt an issue at the poles? When the presidential election was going, on most Obama supporters were wearing his face on a shirt. Doesn't that fall under the same category?

Fact
Fact

In this world... you're either a Tea Bagger or a Douche Bagger.

ByteRider
ByteRider

Another great peice, Sarah!

A number of states have similar laws. It just keeps the playing field level. I'm cool with it because it works BOTH ways.

I think a better day is when we see YOU working for a REAL outfit and not this left-leaning, hate Arpaio, anti-1070 "we love to see dead Mexicans in the desert" rag.

steven
steven

I think the TEA party is a racist organization and they are angry that we have an African-American president. No president has ever endured this type of direct and harsh criticism. Most of the Tea Party's members are old white racist. I have a message for you white racist people; the younger generation has moved past the color lines in this country. They say they want their country back...from who? Black people? Brown people? c'mon, we are all immigrants other than the brown and red people. So to all the Tea Partiers, please be honest with yourselves. If the president wasn't African-American, then there wouldn't be a Tea Party or Birthers or any other anti Obama groups. He is not a perfect president, but everything he does is not going to be wrong...right either. He inherited one of the worse economic disasters this country has ever seen. Furthermore, the republicans do not even want to work with Obama. They hate Obama more than they love their country. Then they get on t.v. and claim they love the country and Obama is bad. Please, they want his presidency to fail so that no other African-American can hold the office. It's all propaganda against Obama.

ol'boy
ol'boy

She should have been put in jail. The T-Party has no reason to try to influence the election. That is the reason we have ACORN, dressed in black and carrying clubs to make sure all who vote, vote right.ACORN charges were dismissed by the courts, no charges for their presents at the polling place.

phpeters87
phpeters87

@steven  


Obama's policies are the issue. Even Obama is changing his own laws without Congressional approval and delaying them because they are such disasters, such as the ACA


No one cares about his skin color. It's his policies.


And he's not the first President to inherit a bad economy.


Ronald Reagan inherited higher unemployment, higher gas prices adjusted for inflation, 20% loan rates, etc... and turned the economy around in a few years without the help of Dems.


And federal tax revenues nearly doubled during the 1980'

s - it was the Dems that controlled spending as they held both houses and spent more than we took in.


Look up federal tax revenues during the 1980's and you'll see they nearly doubled.


Obama also said that GWB having the deficit go from 5 Trillion to 9.5 Trillion during his 2 terms was "UnAmerican" yet under Obama, we've seen the deficit go from 9.5 Trillion to 17+ Trillion and counting in 5 years.


What do you call that?


Under Obama, the deficit will likely double than it has under his 44 predecessors from 9.5 Trillion to over 20 Trillion.


Bush's fault, right?

 
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