Laws to keep in mind as you head to the polls

November 6, 2012

VoteAfter fifteen months of campaigning, Election Day has finally arrived.

As millions of Americans head to the polls today, the many different laws affecting voting follow.

Unfortunately, since the vast majority of voting laws are codified at the state level, we don’t have a lot of bright line rules that apply on a national scale.

Nevertheless, there are certain Election Day laws that nearly all states have in common.

First and foremost deals with electioneering.

“Electioneering” in the context of these laws refers to trying to persuade voters to vote a certain way.

Every state prohibits electioneering on Election Day near polling places, but there is quite a variance of sizes in these “electioneering-free” zones.

For example, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania only prohibit electioneering within ten feet of a polling place and Vermont only prohibits electioneering within the building of the polling place itself, whereas Kentucky prohibits electioneering within 500 feet, and Louisiana within 600 feet of a polling place.

Considering that many states also prohibit loitering in the polling place, it’s generally a good idea to limit your time within the voting area to activities related to your own voting.

However, even if the vast majority of those reading this have no plans to electioneer on Election Day, nor to spend any more time within your polling place than necessary to cast your vote, your state’s electioneering laws may affect you.

And how much they could affect you depends on how your state’s laws define “electioneering.”

If you live within any one of the many states that prohibit “passive” electioneering, you may have to think twice about what you wear to the polls.

In ten states, it is unlawful to wear political materials (such as buttons or placards) within polling places.

These ten states are  Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont.

Eight other states prohibit exhibiting campaign materials, but aren’t as stringent as the above ten states (some even make explicit exceptions for buttons): Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming.

In many of these states, it would also be forbidden to wear t-shirts or other clothing that express political support for a candidate or any other question that appears on the ballot.

Although many free speech advocates have questioned the constitutionality of these laws, there have been virtually no true success stories in challenging them.

And even if you did challenge it and win, would the time and legal expenses required have been worth it?

Even though the laws on electioneering are the most significant to be aware of when voting today, there are a few other minor ones that merit some attention.

One example of this is the issue of alcohol on Election Day.

Historically, nearly all states had forbidden the sale of alcohol on Election Day; today, only a handful still do – Alaska, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Utah (Alaska and Massachusetts allow local governments to make exceptions, and Utah only prohibits alcohol sales while the polls are still open).

Even though most states allow the sale of alcohol on Election Day, many states prohibit bringing alcoholic beverages into a polling place; further, many states prohibit being intoxicated in a polling place.

Regardless of whether your state has such laws, it’s probably just common sense to keep alcohol outside of your voting practices.

Lastly, many states prohibit bringing guns into polling places.

This issue can be a little trickier since, even if your state laws do not explicitly forbid carrying firearms into a polling place, there may be other laws that prohibit bringing firearms into houses of worship, schools, or public buildings, which are often the same locations that serve as polling places.

Though some of these laws may seem strange, none are so unreasonable as to interfere with your right to vote.