Poll Worker Fired For Telling Voters in Black Lives Matter Gear to Change

Voters were wearing face masks and T-shirts with "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe" on them.
October 20, 2020, 5:32pm
Social justice message "Black Lives Matter" on someone’s shirt before an NFL football game on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

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Election officials in Tennessee fired a poll worker last week after he falsely told voters wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” apparel that they had to change before they could cast their ballots.

The poll worker’s demands applied to at least a “handful of people” trying to vote at a Memphis community center while wearing face masks or T-shirts containing the statements, said Suzanne Thompson, a spokesperson for the Shelby County Election Commission. It’s unclear whether any of those voters left after they were told to change, cover up, or turn their clothing items inside-out, according to Thompson, although it sounded like voters largely complied with the worker’s misdirections so they could participate in the election.

In some states, including Tennessee, people can’t wear political garb that displays support for any one candidate or party—otherwise known as “electioneering”—too close to where people cast their ballots. Tennessee law specifically prohibits people from displaying or distributing campaign materials related to any person, party, or “position on a question,” within 100 feet of a polling place.

Shelby County’s poll workers have been trained to know that expressing support for Black Lives Matter is acceptable under those rules, according to Thompson. But the fired poll worker was adamant that any such statement was favoring the Democratic Party.

“We gave them a hand-out that said Black Lives Matter is OK,” Thompson said.

“Here in Memphis, behavior like that is not supposed to be tolerated,” she added. “It’s not tolerated, especially, at our polling locations.”

It was initially reported that the poll worker had explicitly turned people wearing Black Lives Matter gear away from the polling location, but Thompson said the commission does not think that anyone was asked to leave.

The poll worker was fired Friday after someone witnessed the behavior and reported it, according to the Associated Press. His name has not been disclosed, but Thompson confirmed the ousted poll worker was a man. The witness did not leave their number, she added, and the election commission is still searching for more details about the incident.

A majority of American adults side with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that support has increasingly been seen as a political statement since nationwide protests erupted over police brutality this summer.

President Trump, for one, called it a “symbol of hate” when New York City officials said they’d paint “Black Lives Matter” across Fifth Avenue. Police departments in Wisconsin  stopped referring domestic violence victims to a local shelter that put up a sign acknowledging the movement. And, in July, the sheriff for Douglas County, Nevada, said his deputies wouldn’t respond to 911 calls at a library that wanted to announce its support for Black Lives Matter. (A county spokesperson later clarified that deputies would continue responding to calls at the library, despite what the sheriff had said.)

But federal employees, who are otherwise forbidden from partaking in partisan political activities, were recently given the go-ahead to express support for the movement, according to an advisory opinion from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel obtained by USA Today.