When you go out to vote, be careful what you choose to wear.
When you go out to vote, be careful what you choose to wear.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Before You Head to the Polls in Harris County, Check Your T-Shirt

If you show up to the polls to vote on the Houston bond initiative and the many other issues on the ballot this election season, vet your choice of apparel carefully first.

Just as Katie Beth Gottlieb was about to walk toward a voting both at the Fiesta on Old Spanish Trail on Friday morning, an election judge rushed over and said, “You can't wear that shirt!”

Confused, Gottlieb looked down at her T-shirt, which was black and had the last names of the four women who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court – Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor – listed on it.

“That's a political shirt,” the woman said, according to Gottlieb.

“No it's not. These are Supreme Court justices. They weren't elected to anything,” Gottlieb replied. “One of them was appointed by a Republican president, the rest were appointed by Democrats.”

The election judge insisted that Gottlieb's shirt was in violation of the rules. Gottlieb, a lawyer who tends to pair legal-themed T-shirts with jeans for her law firm's casual Fridays, asked to see the rule that said she couldn't vote while wearing her T-shirt. The election judge handed her a stack of papers, but couldn't find the actual rule.

“Let me see if I can Google it,” Gottlieb said.

“You can't have your phone out within 100 feet of the polling place!” the woman exclaimed.

A man waiting behind Gottlieb to cast his ballot offered to lend her his jacket so she could cover up the offending clothing. Gottlieb hesitated for a second, before realizing that she needed to get her ballot cast (she'll be out of town and in trial during the election) and to get to work. She took the jacket and voted.

When she emerged from the voting booth, the election judge handed her a card with the Harris County Clerk's Office phone number on it. Sitting in the parking lot, Gottlieb called and after a couple of transfers landed on the line with a clerk's office employee named Amber.

Still, the woman insisted, when elections judges were trained by the Harris County Clerk's Office, they had been told that no one wearing anything even vaguely political could come within 100 feet of the polls.

When Gottlieb explained what had happened and what was on her shirt, Amber backed the election judge up. “Oh no, that's political, Gottlieb recalls her saying. “We take the rules against electioneering very seriously and we want to create a safe space for voting.”

Because of the serious regard for ensuring voting is a safe experience in a neutral zone, election judges are given a wide latitude in determining whether apparel being worn by voters is in support of a candidate, proposition or political party, the guidelines that constitute electioneering, according to the state election code. While it's true that Supreme Court justices are appointed, not elected, the shirt was deemed an electioneering violation.

Houston lawyer Katie Beth Gottlieb wore her female U.S. Supreme Court justices shirt to early vote on Friday, and found out that not everyone finds the women of the Nine to be non-political.EXPAND
Houston lawyer Katie Beth Gottlieb wore her female U.S. Supreme Court justices shirt to early vote on Friday, and found out that not everyone finds the women of the Nine to be non-political.
Photo courtesy of Katie Beth Gottlieb

Anything from a George Washington T-shirt to a pair of elephant-print pajama bottoms may be considered to be in violation of the election code on this topic, the election judge explained to Gottlieb without even a hint of humor.

Such broad parameters may seem a little crazy, but the Harris County Clerk's Office confirmed that when it comes to what can be considered political paraphernalia, the election judges at the various polling locations are given a lot of room for interpretation. While a shirt like the one Gottlieb was wearing might not be perceived by some people as overtly political, it will come through loud and clear as a political statement to others, a clerk's office representative explained.

Really, both sides have a point.

On one hand, Supreme Court justices are appointed to the high court, and thus don't campaign for the gigs. However, the justices are appointed by presidents who are put in the White House by political parties and the process of choosing someone to sit on the court and getting that person confirmed is highly political.

In other words, while the shirt doesn't seem like a political statement to Gottlieb, it obviously did to the election judge.

She's still a bit bemused that her shirt was taken that way, partly because she has plenty of shirts — shirts supporting Hillary Clinton, Planned Parenthood, abortion rights — that are way more stridently political.

She's considering wearing various T-shirts, one on top of the other, the next time she goes to vote. Then she can pull each one off and run through the options to find out what is acceptable. Will it be okay to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt, a pro-abortion tank top, a shirt emblazoned with a photo of the Lincoln Memorial on it, or one with Dumbo, the flying elephant, festooned on the chest? She could have the fun of finding out when the midterms roll up in 2018, unless an election judge, seeing her pull off shirt after shirt, decides that the very act of trying out shirts on the judges constitutes electioneering. 

"Apparently everything is political now," Gottlieb says.

On the upside, everybody at her law office complimented her awesome T-shirt.

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