A Kentucky law banning election day campaigning near polling places was struck down Tuesday by a federal judge, who ruled the 300- foot buffer impedes free speech by reaching private homes and yards.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman came three weeks before voters head to the polls to decide a long ballot of local, state and federal races. Those races include the hard-fought U.S. Senate campaign pitting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The ruling means that a broad range of electioneering activities would be allowed near the polls, said Christopher Wiest, one of the attorneys for the northern Kentucky man who challenged the state law.
“What this means is there is now complete freedom of speech in and around polling places on Election Day,” Wiest said by phone. “People can hand out fliers, talk to voters. They can wear (campaign) T-shirts, they can hold signs. All that is now fair game.”
Grimes, who is Kentucky’s secretary of state, was reviewing the ruling, said her office’s spokeswoman, Lynn Zellen. Attorney General Jack Conway’s office did not immediately offer comment. Grimes and Conway were among several state and local officials named as defendants in the lawsuit challenging the law.
The suit was brought in June 2014 by John Russell, a Campbell County businessman who had campaign signs pulled from the yard of his auto body shop on Election Days in 2012 and 2014. The signs were removed by sheriff ’s deputies because they were within 300 feet of a polling place at a church in Cold Spring, Kentucky.
Leading up to the May 2014 primary election, the political signs posted outside his business promoted a Republican candidate for Campbell County judge/ executive and a Democrat running for county sheriff. Those signs were removed on primary day.
Russell’s business, Campbell County Auto Body, is situated about 150 feet from the polling place, across from a busy highway.
The judge ruled that the law’s defenders failed to show that it does not impinge on constitutionally protected rights. Bertelsman said the state law violates First Amendment speech rights, and he issued a permanent injunction blocking the law’s enforcement.
The judge noted that such anti-electioneering laws are designed to prevent voter intimidation and voter fraud. But he noted that the 300-foot buffer can spread to private property, including residences.
“A 300-foot zone is a far greater distance than is necessary to prevent the targeted evils,” he wrote.
“As in the present case, such a distance can run across busy streets and highways. It can cover areas, including private yards, not even visible from the polling place. It prohibits activities in private homes. Indeed, the Court fails to see how the typical, stationary yard sign could ever intimidate a voter or abet election fraud, unless it was blocking the entrance to the polling place.”