- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota voters would be allowed to wear political clothing and buttons while casting their ballots under a bill set to be debated during the state’s upcoming legislative session.

The bill’s sponsors contend it’s a free speech issue, saying they’ve heard from people who have run into trouble at the polls while wearing political attire. Republican Rep. Drew Dennert, a sponsor, told The Associated Press this week that as long as people aren’t being disruptive, they should be able to wear their t-shirts and buttons, cast their votes and leave.

Dennert said a friend voting in the 2016 presidential general election had to turn inside out a shirt supporting a candidate who hadn’t survived the primary and wasn’t on the ballot. Dennert said he thought that went “a little bit far.”

“I think we probably can loosen it up as long as there’s not people who are trying to persuade you how to vote in the polling place,” Dennert said. “I don’t see how if someone’s wearing a t-shirt or a campaign button, how that’s going to negatively affect anything within the polling place.”

The 2019 legislative session begins Jan. 8.

GOP Sen. Stace Nelson, the bill’s main sponsor, said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year striking down Minnesota’s broad restrictions on voters wearing political hats, T-shirts and pins to the polls provided “the needed boost” to roll back South Dakota’s law. Most states restrict what people can wear when they vote, but Minnesota’s restraints were some of the broadest. The high court ruling did say states can place limits on such apparel.

Nelson said supporters are trying to educate their colleagues that South Dakota’s law is unconstitutional and that lawmakers need to repeal portions of it and “get back to respecting the voters’ right to freedom of speech.”

Right now, the law says people can’t display campaign posters, signs or “other campaign materials” in a polling place or within 100 feet of its entrance.

The bill would allow voters to wear political clothing and buttons to the polls while retaining the prohibition on posters and signs. Dennert said people might be more excited to go to vote and wear their shirts and buttons while casting their ballots.

Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz opposes the plan, saying the changes would make some voters uncomfortable. He said current law is fair and applies to everyone.

“It’s hard enough to do elections without monkeying around with something like this,” Litz said.

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