Andy Cilek's quixotic fight against Minnesota's voting dress code

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Andy Cilek strode into the polling place on Election Day 2010 with patriotism in his heart and a mistrust of democracy in his belly.

The Hennepin County resident wore a Tea Party t-shirt with the caption "Don't Tread on Me." Pinned to his chest was a button. "Please I.D. Me," it said, a reference to Cilek's belief that would-be voters should prove their eligibility by showing some form of government-issued identification. 

An election judge pulled Cilek aside. The shirt and button must go, or at least be covered up, before you're allowed to vote, Cilek was told. Minnesota statute prohibits clothing with any "political badge, political button, or other political insignia" at polling stations.

The idea is that any material "designed to influence or impact" voting is banned — regardless if the offending item makes no reference to a particular issue or candidate. Violators can be fined up to $5,000. 

Cilek ultimately cast his ballot that November day, but not before a standoff with officials that lasted "for over five hours." 

Cilek would go on to found the Minnesota Voters Alliance in 2013, a citizens group that argues for voter identification laws to combat election fraud, though studies show such fraud arises in less than one vote per million. He sued the state, contending the statute violates the right to free speech. 

A lower court upheld the statute. A federal appeals court did the same. Cilek appealed again.   

Next week he will find out if his case will heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Cilek did not respond to interview requests. Minnesota Secretary of State spokesperson Ryan Furlong declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

About 10 states have similar laws on the books, according to Cilek's lawyer, Wen Fa of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit libertarian organization.

"What's unique in this case," says Fa, "is we're not just talking about shirts that say 'Feel the Bern' or 'Vote for Hillary' or 'Vote for Trump.' We're talking about shirts that say 'Chamber of Commerce' or 'Tea Party' or 'AFL-CIO,' things that really have nothing to do with endorsing a particular political candidate or ballot issue."

Minnesota's law is so broad, and the authority to decide what is "political" rests solely at the discretion of election judges, that the law is an overreach of government, according to Fa. 

"If the government wants to restrict your speech in a careful way, that's one thing," he says. "This doesn't do that. This allows it to prohibit organizations that don't endorse candidates or have any relation to any particular issue."

The high court will make its decision on September 26.