Opinions are running hot this political season. People are especially likely to be particularly fervent in their views supporting or opposing particular candidates and issues because many of them view this election as especially important. They feel there’s a lot at stake.
The freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution received that special place in the document for a reason: No matter what other rights the Constitution gives us, they wouldn’t mean nearly as much without the right to freely to express our views.
As important as First Amendment freedom of expression is, however, there is one place where, if such expression is an attempt to influence voting, one may not express one’s political views freely. That’s at or near a polling place.
Such attempts are known as electioneering, which is against the law.
What does and does not constitute electioneering is a complicated question. First Amendment rights notwithstanding, one should probably err on the side of caution. A good rule of thumb in order to be safe is, when in doubt, don’t do it, say it or display it.
The Utah Election Code defines electioneering as “any oral, printed, or written attempt to persuade persons to refrain from voting or to vote for or vote against any candidate or issue.” It also prohibits electioneering “within a polling place” or “in any public area within 150 feet of the building where a polling place is located.”
The freedom to cast one’s vote free of even the slightest hint of undue influence — let alone of intimidation — is considered vital. In fact, it’s considered so important that according to the law, it’s even more important than First Amendment freedom of expression.
Not long ago, it wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility — especially in certain parts of the country — that one could be a poll worker by day and a member of a racist organization by night. And, if such a membership was any kind of a secret, it was an open one. It’s worth remembering, too, that people have died for the right to vote — such as the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 for trying to register blacks to vote.
The better two people know each other, the more likely they are to exchange seemingly-innocent comments about candidates and issues at polling places. Such relationships, and such exchanges, are especially likely in areas like Tooele County, where precincts are comparatively small. While such comments, without an intent to influence voting, are not electioneering, perhaps even they ought to be avoided to remain on the safe side.
Because this is the United States of America, no matter who disagrees with you, you’re entitled to your opinions. When you go to cast your vote or to help others cast theirs, however, it’s best to leave those opinions at home.
Ken Gourdin, a Tooele resident, graduated from Weber State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is a certified paralegal.