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Quit splitting hairs; just ban wording on clothes at polls

Quit splitting hairs; just ban wording on clothes at polls

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What if Election Day came and nobody was allowed to have lettering of any kind on their clothing inside the polling place?

What a concept: a slogan-free election for at least one day.

Unfortunately, lawmakers weren't quite that precise when attempting to codify what was permitted and what was banned inside a polling place. Rather, they singled-out "electioneering" for banishment, which left it up to judges to decide just what that word meant.

Last week, Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens threw in the legal towel in her attempt to ban Tea Party T-shirts from polling places. A U.S. District Court judge had decided in a separate but related case that "electioneering" referred only to candidates, parties or issues that were on the ballot, and only specific support or opposition. Using that logic, the Tea Party could not be engaged in electioneering because it wasn't a formal political party.

Right, just like those Swift Boaters were only educating voters about John Kerry, not campaigning, or MeetUp.Com was only an Internet chat room full of "friends" of Howard Dean.

In other words, once judges start splitting hairs about which slogan or logo is directly tied to a ballot name or issue and which isn't, we wind up keeping lawyers for advocacy groups like the Goldwater Institute gainfully employed.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened in the case of Coconino County, which wound up paying $42,700 to the institute to cover its legal costs. Goldwater contends it took the case to defend fairness and free speech rights, but we doubt it would have been interested if the T-shirt, which read "Reclaiming Our Constitution Now," had instead sought to "Reclaim our Welfare Rights."

Now, polling place officials will need a scorecard to keep track of which group with the word "party" in its name is not a real party, and which candidate or ballot issue has been endorsed or opposed by whom.

-- Should a United Way of Northern Arizona employee, for example, have been barred from voting in an agency shirt last November because the group's executive board backed funding for First Things First?

-- Should Flagstaff firefighters not have been allowed to vote in uniform last May because their union campaigned for Meet and Confer on the ballot?

When the rules are simple, the answer is clear, and without taking a particular position on either of those ballot issues: No lettering or logos of any kind inside the polling place. Many public schools, led by the charters, have decided that allowing students to wear clothing with lettering is just too distracting, and we see no reason why that same rationale should not be applied to voters.

Some will say that kind of logic censors free speech. We say it preserves deliberative decision-making, which on Election Day is much more important. Voters nowadays already arrive at the polls frazzled by an endless barrage of robocalls, sound-bite TV ads and mailers that usually fail a fact-check somewhere by the second sentence. If a polling place cannot be a safe haven for at least one day from what has become a near-perpetual campaign, what can?

So here's our simple, nonpartisan proposal: Rewrite the law to expand the ban on "electioneering" to include "all lettering, logos and symbols." If schoolchildren can come clean for an entire year, voters can do so for one day.

It's no wonder more and more voters are choosing to vote early by mail. It's not just the hassle of waiting in line while you vote. It's what you have to read while you wait.

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