This article was originally published in the Houston Chronicle on March 21, 2019.
There are some scenarios where you might expect an outfit to raise eyebrows — for example, wearing white to a wedding, a Longhorns shirt in College Station or a dress made of meat to a celebrity awards show.
But when Houston resident Jillian Ostrewich went to her local polling place last fall wearing a “Houston Fire Fighters” T-shirt, she never expected to cause a stir.
Jillian’s husband is a Houston firefighter, and she often wears a yellow shirt with “Houston Fire Fighters” across the front to show support for her husband and their fire department family. She’s worn that shirt all over town with no problem.
But when Jillian wore it to vote, she suddenly had to check her First Amendment rights at the door.
At the polling place, an election worker said Jillian’s shirt violated a Texas law against electioneering because there was a proposition about firefighter pensions on the ballot. If she wanted to vote, Jillian would have to turn her shirt inside out, even though it said absolutely nothing about the ballot initiative or even anything about voting. If she refused, she could not vote.
Texas’ voter apparel law is vague, overly broad and randomly enforced. It prohibits voters from wearing anything that could possibly be related to any person or issue that is currently on the ballot, has ever been on the ballot or might possibly be on the ballot in the future. What’s more, the law applies not only inside a polling place, but within 100 feet of the polling place doors, putting public areas like sidewalks or parks within its no-speech zone.
The law’s enforcement is left up to the election workers at each polling place, resulting in on-the-spot judgments about whether a voter’s clothing is electioneering. Acceptable attire at one polling place might get voters at another polling place kicked out. And there’s no way to know beforehand whether your outfit might cause problems.
Let’s say that during the next election, the ballot includes a proposal on public funding to replace Minute Maid Park. Under the Texas law, a voter could potentially be barred from the polls for wearing an Astros shirt, or even just wearing orange!
Absurd outcomes like this aren’t just hypothetical. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, another Houston voter was kicked out of her polling place for wearing an Alaska souvenir shirt , because the election worker thought it supported vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.