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Chuck Haga and Sam Benshoof, Forum Communications Co., Published May 11 2012

Election law may bar Sioux gear at Cass County polls

FARGO – Cass County’s chief election official said Friday that people showing up to vote on June 12 wearing Fighting Sioux-related apparel could be asked to take it off or cover it up before being allowed to cast their vote.

Mike Montplaisir, Cass County’s auditor, said because the University of North Dakota nickname issue is on the ballot, he and other county auditors throughout the state are advising people not to show up at the polls wearing any clothing bearing the Sioux nickname or logo.

“It’s just a fairness issue,” he said. “You can’t be campaigning at the polls.”

The concern is prompted by Measure 4, which will ask voters across the state to uphold or reject the Legislature’s repeal of a state law requiring UND to continue using the Fighting Sioux nickname. A “yes” vote will be to allow UND to retire the name. A “no” will have the effect of requiring UND to keep the nickname.

Montplaisir’s comments came after Al Jaeger, the North Dakota secretary of state, said earlier this week that state election laws forbid wearing buttons or other materials designed to promote a candidate at a polling place, and the law applies to ballot measures.

From the North Dakota Century Code, Section 16.1-10-03: “No individual may buy, sell, give, or provide any political badge, button, or any insignia within a polling place or within 100 feet from the entrance to the room containing the polling place while it is open for voting. No such political badge, button, or insignia may be worn within that same area while a polling place is open for voting.”

Anyone committing such “electioneering on election day” would be guilty of an infraction, which carries a fine of up to $500.

Jaeger said the question of whether that state ban on electioneering applies to standard Sioux garb would be up to local officials.

“So would wearing Sioux apparel be a violation? It depends if someone thinks it would be an ‘insignia’ and trying to influence a vote one way or other on Measure 4,” he said.

Despite Montplaisir’s initial take, how the issue will be handled in Cass County is not yet settled. State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said Friday it’s not clear yet whether somebody wearing a Sioux jersey or T-shirt would run afoul of state election law.

“That is the question, whether it does or doesn’t,” he said. “And we’d probably have to look more closely in that regard.”

Burdick plans on examining the statutes in more detail and discussing with other state officials and prosecutors to figure out how best to respond to the issue on Election Day.

In Grand Forks County, State’s Attorney Peter Welte has indicated just the Sioux logo on an article of clothing won’t be an issue, as long as “it’s a shirt or jersey you took out of your closet, just a regular shirt,” said Debbie Nelson, the county auditor.

“He said it’s OK,” Nelson said. “It’s not going to be an issue.”

It likely would be an issue, however, if you try to vote while wearing a hat or jersey bearing some variation of the “Save the Fighting Sioux” campaign slogan, she said.

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535