SOMERSET, Pa. – Debate has rekindled in Somerset County over whether political attire is permissible for voters inside polling stations on Election Day.
Meyersdale resident Chet Bittinger said that he worries the prohibition of such attire could deter people from voting – and that it violates his freedom of speech.
Somerset County Solicitor Michael Barbera countered on Wednesday that poll workers are following a county Election Code policy that has been in place for decades – and that the U.S. Supreme Court has established that polling places aren’t “public forums” – meaning free speech rights are diminished so that citizens can exercise their constitutional right to vote without political persuasion.
A May 17 incident marks the second time in two years the Somerset County Republican Party has raised issues about the county’s policy.
The previous incident occurred during the November 2020 presidential election.
This time, Bittinger, a U.S. Army veteran, wore a cap supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano into the basement of Meyersdale Masonic Lodge 554, which served as a primary election polling place.
“I felt intimidated,” he said, adding that an election worker told him several times to remove the hat before handing over his ballot. Once he started voting, the worker approached him with a policy in hand, bringing up the topic again, Bittinger said.
“I felt like I was being harassed,” he said.
A sign outside polling stations advises voters about wearing politically themed attire, including T-shirts, inside.
While the Pennsylvania Department of State’s 2016 guidelines bar such attire from being worn by poll workers and designated watchers, and discourage it in general, the guidelines recommend allowing voters to wear political shirts, hats or buttons under one condition.
“Voters who are in the polling place should not campaign for their chosen candidates, and judges of election should ask those voters to refrain from doing so while in the polling place,” the guidance reads.
Barbera stressed that county election officials are not refusing an individual’s rights to vote – but they are entitled to inform voters about the county’s election policies.
Barbera noted that state code also prohibits electioneering, and as clarified in recent years, the recommendation about political attire gives counties the freedom to make their own decisions about what conduct isn’t permissible in polling stations.
“There’s a lot of gray area ... when it comes to what constitutes electioneering,” he said.
The county elections board – which includes Somerset County’s three commissioners, aside from years their seats are up for re-election, and pollworkers – has followed an election policy that has been unchanged for years when it comes to electioneering, Barbera said.
And that includes prohibiting political attire, he said.
“Otherwise, where do you draw the line?” Barbera said.
“What if the hat lights up in the candidate’s name? What if someone enters wearing a suit printed from head to toe with the words ‘Trump’ or ‘Biden’? At what point is it campaigning?”
Somerset County GOP Chairman Guy Berkebile said he thought the issue was resolved in 2020 – and said he’s disappointed he heard again from a voter who had issues “just for wearing a hat with a candidate’s name on it.”
He and Bittinger met with Barbera and President Commissioner Gerald Walker this week to discuss the issue.
“My concern is, how many people out there are getting harassed who don’t have the courage to stand up for their right, like Mr. Bittinger?” Berkebile said. “It only seems to be a problem here. I’m not hearing about this from other counties.”
Barbera said the election board will review the policy, adding: “I anticipate they will determine whether clarification is needed for both voters and election workers.” There was no timetable provided.
The board is scheduled to meet twice monthly, immediately following county commissioners’ meetings. But the meetings only occur as needed when there is business to deliberate or that may require a board vote, Barbera said.