Tea party shirts spark polling place controversy

Tea party shirts spark polling place controversy

October 30th, 2010 by Andy Johns in News

Officials with the Georgia Secretary of State's Office told election officials Friday that tea party shirts and hats are not allowed in polling places after supporters were kicked out of voting precincts in Walker and Catoosa counties.

Tea party leaders say they should be able to wear their gear because they are not a political party.

The tea movement, an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, has gained traction in conservative North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee over the last two years. The loose organization claims to be nonpartisan, but its endorsements in several races are mostly Republicans and Libertarians.

James Groce, head of the Walker County Tea Party, said he was kicked out of a Chickamauga voting precinct last week for wearing a Walker County Tea Party shirt.

He said he was allowed to vote after calling the elections office and threatening to call U.S. marshals. He said the shirt does not promote any candidate or party affiliation.

"I said, 'Where do you see Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Independent on my T-shirt?'" Groce said. "If you're being told that you need to go change clothes before you vote ... that is a violation of civil rights."

Walker County Elections Supervisor Barbara Berry said that, when she first called the secretary of state's office, she was told that allowing or disallowing tea party gear would be a local decision.

On Friday, however, the state office held a statewide web conference to explain that tea party paraphernalia should not be allowed.

"The word from the secretary of state's office is that no one can wear the tea party shirts, buttons or hats into our polling places," Berry explained.

Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said state law covers more than just political parties and candidates' names.

He cited a section of Georgia code that states: "No person shall solicit votes in any manner or by any means or method, nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign literature, newspaper, booklet, pamphlet, card, sign, paraphernalia, or any other written or printed matter of any kind" inside any polling place.