TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Coconino County officials harassed a grandmother about her tea party T-shirt when she voted in a special election and then forced her to cover the shirt with a sweater at the statewide primary elections, despite having assured her that “she would not be turned away from her polling place if she wears the tea party T-shirt … the next time she votes,” Diane Wickberg claims in Federal Court.
On May 18, the day of the special election, Wickberg wore a white shirt with the words “Flagstaff Tea Party – Reclaiming Our Constitution Now” to her polling station at the Bethel Baptist Church.
She claims a polling employee told her “that she must change her shirt, turn it inside out, ‘go out and get a jacket’ or otherwise cover it with another article of clothing before voting.”
“One of the other poll employees warned Plaintiff in a loud voice to change or cover her shirt, stepping right in front of her and invading her personal space in an intimidating manner,” the lawsuit states.
After harassing her about the shirt, the poll employees allegedly let her vote “without having to cover her shirt ‘but only because’ no other voters were in the polling station.”
When she got home, Wickberg says she called Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens, who told her, “of course you were told to cover up … it’s a political statement … I don’t know what your tea party shirt looks like but clearly the tea party has an agenda.”
Owens allegedly “warned Plaintiff that if she wears the tea party shirt again, she will not be allowed to vote and suggested that she seek an early ballot instead of voting at the polling station on the next Election Day.”
Wickberg had her lawyer contact Amy Bjelland, a state elections official, to assert the grandmother’s First Amendment right to wear the shirt, as she wasn’t trying to influence voters. Wickberg says she wears the shirt every Tuesday, when the Flagstaff tea party meets, and claims the movement does not endorse candidates or ballot measures.
Wickberg says Bjelland agreed, in her reply letter, that the shirt wasn’t electioneering, but Owens still warned two tea party members that anyone wearing the Flagstaff tea party shirt to polling stations would not be allowed to vote in the Aug. 24 general election.
She claims that when she wore her tea party shirt to the polling station on Aug. 24, she was forced to cover it up with a sweater. She says other voters who wore Flagstaff tea party T-shirts to other Coconino County polling stations were allowed to vote while wearing the shirts.
Wickberg demands a declaration that Owens and Coconino County are violating her constitutional rights “by improperly and discriminatorily enforcing and threatening to continue to enforce the electioneering laws.”
She also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Her attorney is Clint Bolick of the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.