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Voting Queue Etiquette: Hey, Buddy, That's Out Of Line!

South Floridians stood in long lines Sunday during the last day of early voting in Miami.
Alan Diaz
South Floridians stood in long lines Sunday during the last day of early voting in Miami.

For most of us, Election Day marks a welcome end to months of relentless political ads and partisan bickering. You show up at your polling place, run the gantlet of sign-wielding campaign volunteers, and join your fellow Americans in long lines that inch toward the voting booth.

Maybe you while away the time quietly reflecting on the choices you're about to make. But in an age when the rules about when it's OK to express one's political opinion seem to have frayed, what if someone decides the line at the polling station is the place to talk politics?

Just ask Laura Hughey, who says she remembers one man who was "especially pushy" in making his views known as she waited to vote a few years ago. That experience has colored her views on how people ought to act at the polling station.

"Voting is a sacred privilege," says Hughey, a Dallas resident. "I don't need you to know whether or not I voted, or which candidate I voted for. I don't care to know your status or opinion either."

Hughey was one of many people who responded to a question on NPR's Facebook page about polling station etiquette.

Gail McDonald had a totally different experience when she recently cast her ballot in Florida. She says she was surprised by all the people in line who were wearing Obama and Romney garb, because her former home state of Georgia bars such forms of "passive electioneering."

"I actually had a great conversation with the lady behind me in line," writes McDonald, who is a campaign volunteer for President Obama. McDonald says she felt compelled to start a conversation because the woman was wearing a button that declared: "VOTE — your vagina is counting on you."

They wound up passing the hour in line discussing politics.

Unlike Florida, many states have laws against passive electioneering, such as wearing political buttons or T-shirts within a certain distance of the voting machines — usually the demarcation is within 100-150 feet. Ann Brekke of Chicago found that out in 2008 when her 9-year-old daughter accompanied her to the polls wearing an Obama T-shirt. An election judge intercepted them and told the girl to turn the shirt inside out.

Still, electioneering laws differ and enforcement can be spotty, says Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters.

"It varies from state to state and even from county to county," MacNamara says. "Even what steps a poll worker takes [to prevent passive electioneering] vary by state."

Of course, there's no law that keeps people from discussing their political opinions as they're queuing to vote.

Christopher Mercer claims he isn't shy about letting you know who he's voting for, and that he wears political shirts and buttons when he goes to the polls. "While standing in line, I will openly engage in discourse with members of the opposition," he writes in an email to NPR.

But count Kimberley Bryan-Brown among those who believe there's a time and a place for such conversations.

"I have to say even the overheard discussions bother me, because for some reason it feels like it's breaking some sort of ethical boundary," writes Bryan-Brown of Seattle. "When it comes to the moment of voting, when you're there at the gates, so to speak, there should be a kind of political silence."

Thomas Hollihan, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says that for him, voting is "a bit like church."

"Elections are civic rituals, which in some ways are similar to formal religious rituals," says Hollihan, who wrote the book Uncivil Wars: Political Campaigns in a Media Age.

"I think it means one should be on their best and most polite behavior," he says. "And that does mean to respect that in America we honor the privacy of the vote, and that we allow each person to make up his or her own mind."

Allan Louden, a professor of political communication at Wake Forest University, agrees that voter-line etiquette means talking politics is out.

"In that spot, you don't do it. That's my experience," he says. "Besides, you could even have a backlash effect. If someone's being rude, you might not want to support their candidate."

Even so, there were plenty of people who responded to NPR's Facebook call-out who thought political conversations and even buttons and T-shirts are just fine.

"It's not going to change my mind one way or the other at that point," says William Falls Jr. of North Carolina. "And really, it's not much different than the candidates' pollsters standing in front of the building with their handouts."

Katy Cline of Tyler, Tex., says the voting line ought to be as quiet as the library. So when she and her husband waited along with their 4-year-old son, Dashill, during the GOP primary, they had no intention of talking politics. Dashill had other ideas.

"There was no line at the Democratic primary, and he asked why we can't go wait in that line," Cline recalls. "So, I thought, what better time than the present to talk about it?

"I was careful not to mention who we planned to vote for," she writes, "but we told him that the next time we voted, we would all be together in one big line and that you could vote for whoever you wanted. It didn't matter which line you'd waited in this time.

"I was quite nervous when I started to talk to him about it, but everyone was pretty supportive," Cline says. "I got mostly smiles from the people in line and the poll workers."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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