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Voters at polling places who refuse to remove buttons, T-shirts or other apparel with political messages will face possible misdemeanor charges, local election officials said Wednesday.
Election Day workers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County have been told to ask voters wearing political clothing or a button to either cover it up or remove it. The move is part of a newly clarified state guideline that bans all such exhibitions of campaign material at Virginia's polling places.
Two Charlottesville-based groups along with the Virginia ACLU said Wednesday that they will sue over the policy, asserting that it is a violation of free speech.
If the voter does not agree to cover or remove the political apparel, the poll workers must file an incident report with the commonwealth attorney's office for possible prosecution.
Even if a voter refuses to remove his campaign button or T-shirt, he will still have the opportunity to vote.
"No one will be refused the right to vote for violating this policy," said Rick Sincere, chairman of Charlottesville's Electoral Board.
The law banning campaign material at polling places has been on the books for "generations," Sincere said. In the past, he added, voters have generally been happy to comply.
The issue has come into focus this election year because of a massive influx of new voters. Since Jan. 1, Charlottesville has added roughly 9,000 voters while Albemarle County has added 5,579.
According to the Code of Virginia, the fine for violating the ban on campaign materials within a polling place can carry a punishment of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
Claude Worrell, Charlottesville deputy commonwealth's attorney, said he does not anticipate any problems Tuesday.
"We expect voters to be cognizant of what the rules are and to be compliant with the rules on Election Day," he said.
Denise Lunsford, commonwealth's attorney for Albemarle County, said she knows that people are excited about the election, but they must still follow the rules.
If any complaints are filed, Worrell and Lunsford said, prosecutors will consider them on a case-by-case basis.
"If an incident happens, we'll evaluate it when it happens," Lunsford said.
The Richmond-based ACLU, The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and The Rutherford Institute announced Wednesday that they intend to file a lawsuit over the ban on political apparel at polling places.
The suit will not affect this year's election, but instead is aimed at the next state and local elections, according to the ACLU.
The suit targets a policy instituted by the State Board of Elections on Oct. 14.
"The State Board of Elections has not only misinterpreted the state law, but in the process it has unnecessarily and unconstitutionally banned passive personal expression that has no history whatsoever of disrupting the voting process," said Kent Willis, ACLU of Virginia director.
The board upheld the state law and interpreted the phrase to mean no person shall display any material that advocates for or against a clearly identified candidate, according to the board's Web site. Any person who shows or exhibits such materials will be asked to remove or cover them while inside the prohibited area and polling place, the board said.
"Thomas Jefferson understood that the first duty of government is to protect the freedom of expression," said John W. Whitehead, Rutherford Institute president. "Regrettably, the State Board of Elections shirked this important civic duty when it adopted what essentially amounts to a dress-code policy. This policy not only undermines the First Amendment right to free speech, but will most likely affect the right to vote."
The three groups advise voters who do not want to face criminal charges to be prepared to remove or cover political apparel if told to do so. But they ask anyone who experiences such problems to contact the ACLU or Rutherford.