‘MAGA’ hats allowed but ‘Biden’ gear banned under California in-person voting rules
California election rules prohibit clothing, signs and swag urging support for a specific candidate at polling places, but state officials have decided no such ban exists on items emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” a mantra championed by President Trump.
If there’s a distinction between a shirt bearing the name of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the ubiquitous hats featured prominently in Trump’s online store, it may be lost on voters come election day.
“I want to make sure the public knows what the rules are,” said Kammi Foote, the registrar of voters in Inyo County. “I don’t want to be accused of favoritism allowing MAGA gear but telling people with a Biden/Harris mask to remove it.”
California has long differentiated between political slogans and what the law defines as “electioneering” — displaying information about a candidate or campaign — at a polling place or vote center. Last month, state elections officials made clear that gear bearing the Trump slogan would not be considered synonymous with showing support for the president’s reelection.
“Examples of campaign slogans or political movement slogans include but are not limited to: Make America Great Again (MAGA), Black Lives Matter (BLM), Keep America Great (KAG), Vote for Science, and Build Back Better,” said the Sept. 28 guidelines sent to county registrars of voters.
“State law is clear that you can’t have a candidate’s likeness or name,” said Sam Mahood, a spokesman for Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “It does not prohibit slogans that could be created for a campaign or a political movement.”
Foote, who is a registered Republican in a county where three-fourths of voters are aligned with the GOP, said the other slogans cited by state officials seem to connote something broader than support for a single candidate. She has already ordered a supply of paper aprons as a cover for anyone who shows up wearing clothing that is explicitly in favor of a candidate or ballot measure. But she said she fears the standard for MAGA items won’t seem fair to Democrats and those opposed to Trump.
“This particular campaign material is tied to a specific candidate in most voters’ perception,” Foote said. “And perception is reality. I don’t want my poll workers to have to defend this.”
The rules related to clothing, buttons and other items apply both to voters and to anyone who asks to be an observer at a voting location. But Mahood said more strict rules would apply to poll workers, who are considered to be employees of the county elections office and must remain nonpartisan in their duties at voting locations.
A number of new procedures related to in-person voting have been added this fall for those who are not using the ballot mailed to them, prompted by the need for additional protections to lessen the spread of COVID-19. Masks present one notable area of concern for improper electioneering. A mask with the president’s preferred slogan will be allowed, as long as it does not include his name or likeness.
Elections officials say any “Make America Great” gear that includes Trump’s name will be prohibited, which could lessen what some Trump critics might otherwise see as a double standard.
Existing state law limiting the use of candidate-specific material at voting locations was written in 2009, but the issue has long been a contentious one.
Activists supporting a Mendocino County candidate asked a court to overrule a decision by the county’s chief elections officer to bar them from displaying buttons on their clothing near polling places. The judge in the case sided with the registrar of voters, writing that being told to cover up the buttons was “a very slight inconvenience necessary to safeguard a free and untainted electoral process.” The U.S. Supreme Court embraced a campaigning buffer of 100 feet in a 1992 ruling.
Even so, no candidate has been more uniquely identified in modern times with a slogan than Trump.
Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, said he was also surprised by the allowance of MAGA apparel for voters and election observers.
“I think an argument could be made that it should be tightened up a little bit,” Berman said of the state’s electioneering law. “Like so many things with this president, we’re encountering a lot of firsts.”
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