A Flagstaff woman was told she would not be allowed to vote if she wears her Tea Party shirt to the polls.
And when Diane Wickberg called the Coconino County Recorder and the Secretary of State's office to complain, staffers in both offices assured her that the prohibition is correct -- because, she was told, the Tea Party "clearly has an agenda" and because it endorses conservative candidates.
Clint Bolick, an attorney at the Goldwater Institute, fired off a letter to the Coconino County Recorder and the Arizona Secretary of State today, warning that Wickberg's First Amendment rights were violated by the directive.
Arizona law makes it a misdemeanor to "knowingly electioneer" within 75 feet of a polling station.
But, Bolick said, using that law to exclude "tea party" T-shirts is clearly unconstitutional.
"Unless you enforce the statute as it appears to be written -- i.e., to forbid knowing and overt electioneering, and only such conduct -- you will find yourselves in the situation of determining on a case-by-case basis how 'political' an individual's apparel is," Bolick wrote.
"In their treatment of Ms. Wickberg, and with the apparent sanction of the Secretary of State's office, Coconino County officials have begun down the path of subjectivity and discrimination, which are hopelessly inconsistent with the First Amendment."
As Bolick's letter explains, Wickberg is a member of the tea party group in Flagstaff. After attending a meeting of the group May 18, she went to her polling station at Bethel Baptist Church.
She was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Flagstaff Tea Party -- Reclaiming Our Constitution." The shirt also had an emblem proclaiming "We the People."
"Upon arriving at the polling place," Bolick writes, "Ms. Wickberg was approached by two poll workers, who told her she needed to get a jacket to cover her T-shirt because voters are not allowed to wear 'political things' inside the polling place. Ms. Wickbert did not have a jacket." Because no other voters were present, she was permitted to vote -- but she was "warned that she would not be allowed to do so in the future if she wore her tea party shirt."
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Bolick is demanding that Wickberg is given assurance that she won't be turned away in the future if she's wearing her T-shirt. If not, he writes, "we will advise Ms. Wickberg of her right to take legal action to protect her constitutional rights."
He adds, "The tea party is a not a political party. ... It does indeed have an agenda. However, displaying one's membership in the tea party, along with a depiction of the United States Constitution, does not constitute an overt call upon others to do anything, much less vote for or against a candidate or a ballot proposition.
"A number of membership groups, many of which have overtly political arms, took positions on Proposition 100 [the sales tax increase being considered May 18]. Is it your interpretation of the law that someone wearing an "AEA" 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 of causes?"
These are all good questions. We'll let you know if he gets a response.