“No Hat, or No Vote:" NRA Hat Spurs Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit

Shannon Goessling
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Posted: Dec 13, 2014 12:01 AM
“No Hat, or No Vote:" NRA Hat Spurs Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit

Bundy Cobb was threatened with criminal prosecution and refused to be allowed to vote because he was wearing a khaki hat with the logo “NRA Instructor.” Let that sink in for a minute.

Cobb and his wife Kelly have five children and six grandchildren. He is a retired insurance agent and Vietnam veteran who lives in Douglas County, Georgia. In retirement, he became a National Rifle Association-certified firearms instructor, focusing his efforts on gun safety. He wears a hat with a logo that says, “NRA Instructor.” He and Kelly vote “in every election,” carefully researching candidates and their positions on issues before he goes to the polls.

In short, Bundy Cobb represents thousands of Georgians and millions of Americans who, like him, meet their civic obligations and exercise their rights with the firm conviction that the government should not infringe on the constitutional rights of citizens. Period, full stop.

In October 2014, Cobb went to the Douglasville courthouse in Douglas County, Georgia to vote early. Douglas County is an extended suburban county about 20 miles west of Atlanta.

As he signed the voting documents and showed his photo identification, a poll worker instructed him that he needed to remove his “NRA Instructor” hat or else he wouldn’t be allowed to vote. He was told it was illegal “campaigning.” Douglas County elections supervisor Laurie Fulton went so far as to tell Cobb and the media that “The NRA is associated with the Republicans.”

This was, he was told, the County’s policy, confirmed later by several officials. A policy to prohibit voters from wearing non-campaign clothing that might offend or bother someone at the expense of a fundamental constitutional right. A policy of voter suppression.

Had he chosen to stand his ground and insist on voting with his hat on, he could have been subject to arrest, imprisonment, and a hefty fine. And what does Georgia’s electioneering law prohibit? Campaign-related “paraphernalia” within 150 feet of the polling place. This has been universally understood to mean candidate-specific and political party-specific “paraphernalia” – until now.

The political arm of the NRA issues legislative scorecards and does indeed endorse some Republican candidates – along with hundreds of Democratic candidates, too. The NRA is no more an illegal campaign electioneering vehicle than Ducks Unlimited, the Sierra Club, or the Chamber of Commerce.

Now to the hat. What if a voter arrived at the same polling place wearing a hat with a labor union logo? Would the officials have taken the position that such a hat was “too closely tied to the Democrats?” Or a George Soros t-shirt, or a Koch brothers lapel pin? Absurd? Of course it is. But that’s where this action puts us. It’s a fair question, if you agree that poll workers should be empowered to deny the right to vote to someone based on their non-campaign clothing.

In 2010, an Arizona federal court wrestled with a similar case. Maricopa County elections officials decided that anything with “tea party” on it was illegal electioneering. The federal judge issued a restraining order against the county, saying that “tea party” is not a recognized political party or candidate. The decision was a strongly worded recitation of civil rights law against arbitrary and speech chilling actions by government officials, particularly in the context of voting.

All hats and t-shirts and buttons with any logo, ranging from sports to corporate to special interests, will have to go if enforcement of the policy ban is to be complete. Otherwise, the action by this poll worker against this man with this hat is nothing short of unconstitutional discrimination.

So why is this important? It’s about voting, our most protected and fundamental exercise of civic rights and responsibilities in our constitutional republic. The chilling effect on voters generally is immediate and sharp. Talk about ‘voter suppression!’

For Cobb, who reported the incident and is now pursuing the vindication of his constitutional rights in court, the reasoning is clear. He wants this type of discretionary, arbitrary use of government power over the right to vote to stop. “It could be any one of us at any time who have this happen to them, and it’s just not right,” said Cobb.