Right now, New Hampshire voters aren’t allowed to wear clothing or accessories advocating for or against a candidate, political party or measure on the ballot. Rep. John Potucek, a Derry Republican, is trying to change that — in part because of his own experience at the polls.
“I had a white hat, one which said something to the effect of ‘Make America Great,’ and it had an American flag on it,” Potucek told the House Election Law Committee on Friday. “And I was asked to remove it by the moderator. That, I believe, infringed upon my First Amendment rights.”
Potucek couldn’t recall whether this confrontation happened during a federal or local election, but he said the state should just do away with its ban on political clothing and accessories altogether. Presenting this proposal to the House Election Law Committee last week, he pointed to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Minnesota ban on political clothing at the polls.
New Hampshire’s prohibition on political gear inside polling places has only been in effect only since 2016, but it has been the source of some sartorial controversies in the years since.
While voters can be asked to remove certain clothing or accessories deemed to be “campaign material,” they can still vote even if they refuse to follow those instructions, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office — they might just face sanctions after the election for noncompliance.
The Attorney General’s office fielded scattered complaints and questions about potential violations of this law in Hudson, Littleton, Londonderry and Northwood during the November general election, according to Election Day hotline records shared with NHPR. And during the most recent September state primary election, one woman opted to vote topless after being asked to remove an anti-Trump shirt at an Exeter polling place.
At least two voters were also erroneously told to remove “Black Lives Matter” accessories at the polls last fall: one in Alton during the primary and another in Manchester during the general election. (In Manchester, the state's files note that the accessory in question might have just said "defund the police.") The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office said this shouldn’t have happened and, according to election hotline records, followed up with officials in each location to ensure they understood that “Black Lives Matter” is not the kind of political statement banned by the law, since it isn’t directly linked to a candidate or issue on the ballot.
At Friday’s hearing on the future of the political clothing policy, local election official Teresa Bascom said the state was wrong to allow “Black Lives Matter” clothing while banning “Make America Great Again” material. She was the only other person who testified in support of lifting the ban on political gear at the polls.
“When I was working as the deputy town clerk this past year for this election, ‘MAGA’ was considered a no-go, but ‘BLM’ was OK, and we all know that was as significant for a party, one party, over the other as ‘MAGA’ is,” Bascom said.
Jordan Thompson, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Nashua, said the movement’s chapters in New Hampshire have never endorsed a candidate for political office and strive to hold those on both sides of the political aisle accountable for their positions on policing, criminal justice and other policies. But beyond that, Thompson said equating Black Lives Matter with “Make America Great Again” shows a deeper misunderstanding of the movement.
“It’s just, off the bat, a false equivalence — because the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not a political statement, and if you view it as a political statement, that kind of sounds like a 'you' problem,” Thompson told NHPR in an interview following Friday’s hearing. “ ‘Make America Great Again’ is very specifically tied to not just one but two political campaigns, the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and, of course most recently, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.”
Several other local election officials told the House Election Law Committee they’d like to keep the prohibition on electioneering as-is, saying the current rules work well and that it’s important to preserve a sense of nonpartisanship inside the voting area.
“I think we've all had enough of grifters trying to call our elections invalid in this state,” said Derry Town Councilor James Morgan, who identified himself as a Republican at the beginning of his testimony. “I do not support turning our polling areas into billboards, inciting tensions between supporters inside such a meaningful space. Either we take our election seriously or we invite potential chaos.”
Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan echoed that sentiment and cautioned that Potucek's bill in its current form might not actually accomplish its stated goal, because the state's broader "electioneering" ban would remain unchanged.
“We believe that the area inside the polling place, and especially inside the rail, should be a politically neutral place where a voter can go and exercise their right to vote their choices on the ballot without having campaigns follow them into the same location,” Scanlan said.