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What is Passive Electioneering?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 July 2014
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Passive electioneering is a practice in which people wear insignia associated with various political campaigns or causes. It's considered “passive” because the people are not actively campaigning, but they are definitely making a political statement. Passive electioneering is of special concern at the polls, because many people fear that passive electioneering could intimidate people coming to the polls to vote. For this reason, the practice is banned near polling places in many areas, along with active electioneering.

”Electioneering” is simply the practice of promoting a candidate, cause, or campaign. For example, someone who phone banks for a political candidate could be said to be electioneering, because he or she is doing something active to support a candidate. On the other hand, wearing a t-shirt with a campaign logo on it is a relatively passive act, so it qualifies as passive electioneering.

There are some important things to know about passive electioneering on voting day, and a number of emails have been swirling across the Internet making a variety of claims about passive electioneering. The short story is that passive electioneering is banned by law in many regions, which means that if someone approaches the polls with political paraphernalia, he or she will be asked to cover the political materials up.

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You cannot be turned away from the polls or denied the right to vote, at least in the United States. Polling place workers can ask people to turn political t-shirts inside-out, or to remove buttons, pins, and other materials from their garments. Some polling places have oversized t-shirts for people to wear into the polls to cover political materials, or large opaque bags to cover political purses.

This is a point worth repeating, since there has been a great deal of confusion over passive electioneering: you cannot be denied the right to vote on the basis of skin color, party affiliation, or personal political beliefs. If a pollworker tells you to leave without voting, you need to indicate that you are willing to cover political gear, but you will not leave until you are permitted to fill out a ballot. The incident should also be reported to the supervisor of the polling place, and if legal observers or representatives of voting rights watchdogs organizations are present, you should alert them to the situation.

Because laws about passive electioneering can get confusing, many voting rights activists simply recommend leaving political material at home when you go to the polls, whether or not there are laws against passive electioneering in your area of the world. By refraining from the practice altogether, you can avoid potential conflict or arguments with poll workers. And, of course, you are free to wear political gear outside the polls, and to engage in phone banking, get out the vote efforts, and other forms of electioneering on election day.

The reasoning behind bans on passive electioneering is very sound, although these bans may irritate some voters. Imagine, for example, that you live in a neighborhood which typically supported a specific political party, and you supported the opposition party. You would probably feel a little nervous at the polls surrounded by people wearing paraphernalia associated with that party, and you might even be intimidated enough to leave before you got a chance to vote. You might also be afraid to request your party ballot from a poll worker wearing opposition party gear. Passive electioneering laws protect voters by providing a neutral space to cast ballots.

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