By Charlotte Hoppen
On Tuesday, March 8, the presidential primary elections in Michigan took place. Senior Jack Lawson had just turned 18 and registered to vote, and this primary would be the first time he voted.
In the morning, Lawson and his father headed over to Derby Middle School, which is their registered voting precinct in the city of Birmingham. Lawson was wearing the Birmingham Black Student Union (BBSU) shirt that was created in the spring of 2015 for the Seaholm and Groves Black Student Unions as a symbol of unity for the Birmingham Parade.
This BBSU shirt had the phrases, “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” and the phrases were shaped in the form of the United States. On the back of the shirt is a George Washington Carver quote, which reads, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”
“As I was filling out my card, a man put his hand on my shoulder from behind,” Lawson said. “I turned around, and he had walked all the way from the other side of the room. He looks at me and he says, ‘you know you’re going to have to take that shirt off.’”
According to Lawson, he simply shook off the recommendation to change his shirt and proceeded to fill out his card.
“As I’m finishing up the card about 30 seconds later he comes up to me and says, ‘I’m serious, if you don’t take that off I’m calling the police or if you don’t change I’m calling the police,’” Lawson said. “I don’t remember the exact words, but he definitely said that I cannot be wearing that shirt and if I do not change my shirt or cover it up or take it off he will call the police.”
Lawson stated that the man told him he was violating a federal law by wearing the BBSU shirt and attempting to vote.
After Lawson explained what the shirt was originally designed for and what the symbols and phrases on the shirt meant, he was still informed that in order for him to vote, he had to change his shirt, turn it inside out, or put on a zipped jacket.
“At first I was angry and I wanted to resist,” Lawson said. “I generally didn’t feel I was violating any law, but at the same time this was my first time voting. There was a lot of things I was learning going into this process for the first time.”
Lawson then went over to his father, who was already in the process of voting. He asked his father for his jacket, and put on the jacket over the shirt.
“I began to continue filling out my voting card and the same man comes back over to me from the other side of the room,” Lawson said. “He kind of almost whispers to me, ‘I know this is going to be hard for you, but you’re going to have to zip that all the way up.’”
Lawson then proceeded to vote after zipping his jacket, and after the process was done he received the I Voted sticker and had his father drive him back to school.
The man at the voting precinct who Lawson is referring to is the Chairman of the Precinct, and he has asked for his name to remain out of this article.
The Chairman of the Precinct has been volunteering for local elections since 1980. He claims this has been the only time where a problem has occurred due to what he conceived to be political campaigning inside the precinct.
According to the Chairman of the Precinct, the state law he was referring to when talking to Lawson involves campaigning at the polls.
In the state of Michigan, according to the Michigan Government Election Officials’ Manuel, it is illegal for anyone to campaign or display any form of campaigning within 100 feet of the voting precinct. These forms of campaigning can include shirts, buttons and signs with the names of presidential or other official candidates on them. For example, if someone went to the polls wearing a Trump or Hillary shirt, they would be asked to turn it inside out, change, or cover it up in order to vote.
The Chairman of the Precinct claims that he first noticed on the shirt the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
“The Black Lives Matter would [violate the state law] because it’s been associated with the Democratic Party,” The Chairman of the Precinct said. “We don’t care that its associated with the Democratic Party, if it was associated with the Republican Party it would still be the same problem.”
However, the Black Lives Matter organization claims that they neither support any particular presidential candidate, nor are they affiliated with any political party.
The Chairman of the Precinct also claims that he saw a presidential slogan on the back of the shirt from George Washington. He was later informed that the quote was from George Washington Carver.
According to the Chairman of the Precinct, the BBSU shirt could still be defined as campaigning.
“There is nothing wrong with the shirt to wear it out in public,” The Chairman of the Precinct said. “It’s just because it had the political slogans and the campaigning slogans, or things that could be misconstrued that way that was the only issue.”
According to Lawson, when he got back to school he was too upset to go to class right away. Instead, Lawson went to Leslie Martin’s room. Martin is the faculty member in charge of overseeing the Seaholm Black Student Union (BSU). Lawson is the co-president of the BSU.
Lawson then went to Dawn Whitehead’s and Scott Craig’s room. Both Whitehead and Craig are government teachers at Seaholm, and Lawson was hoping they might be able to help provide him with clarification of if he was indeed violating a federal law.
Both Whitehead and Craig believe that Lawson was legally allowed to wear the shirt and vote without any problems.
“They’re arguing that it’s a political party statement,” Whitehead said. “I think it’s a civil rights statement. I find that really hard to believe I think they were just trying to justify what they had done to him.”
Craig also believes that the shirt doesn’t tie to any particular political party. He also thinks that if people who were trained to handle certain situations related to this incident were present, it may have been handled differently.
“What parties often will do is have what is called a poll challenger at the polling place,” Craig said. “It’s a person selected by the polling place to watch how the polling workers conduct themselves. If there had been poll challengers in that location they probably would have intervened.”
Laura Pierce is the City Clerk for the city of Birmingham. Volunteers for the elections must undergo a training process in order to handle events of all situations before they are allowed to volunteer.
According to Pierce, this training must occur every two years, but the city of Birmingham often times trains again after each election. The training includes processing of voters, campaigning, computer working, poll watchers and challengers and the opening and closing process.
However, the city of Birmingham has altered the training process from the way the state of Michigan mandates.
“Since this event happened I’ve been making a lot of phone calls,” Pierce said. “I found out that the state takes campaigning literally. They want the party or the candidate name. That’s what they would support as campaigning. Whereas we’ve [the city of Birmingham] always taught political.”
Due to this change in training, Pierce believes Lawson would be able to wear the BBSU shirt while voting without violating any federal laws.
“From what we’ve taught, if it’s associated with a party then its not allowed,” Pierce said. “Since then we’ve learned that it would be something you would be allowed to wear because it doesn’t say Republican or Democrat or a certain party. For [The Chairman of the Precinct], its how he was taught.”
Pierce claims that the way volunteers are trained will change in the future due to this event. Volunteer training had originally been altered due to an experience in the past.
“We had one election, I want to say it was 2008, where we had poll watchers come in,” Pierce said. “I can’t remember what it was, it was something similar, and it was associated with a certain candidate. The state had ruled you can’t wear that into the precinct. That’s kind of where we ended up basing all of our training off of.”
The Chairman of the Precinct, however, doesn’t entirely believe that the way the state of Michigan is supposed to train volunteers is entirely effective.
“I still think our way is better where we just don’t let anything in,” The Chairman of the Precinct said.
Although the way the Chairman of the Precinct was trained had faults, Lawson believes that the way the situation was handled wasn’t just.
“This was someone trying to call the police because of someone who was doing no harm, causing no disruption, and just trying to do their civic duty and vote,” Lawson said.
The Chairman of the Precinct claims he didn’t mean to cause any harm, nor a disruption to the voting process.
“We don’t want anyone to feel offended, we want everyone to feel free and not intimidated,” The Chairman of the Precinct said.
While the training for volunteers changes, Lawson refuses to allow this incident to change the way he views the voting system. After he returned to school, Lawson had a friend take a photo of his shirt and he Tweeted the photo along with a short summary of what occurred.
“I just wanted to hear people’s responses on Twitter, I wasn’t trying to do it for attention or anything,” Lawson said. “I wanted to see what people’s reactions were because in my mind it was such a serious situation. From the reaction I got on Twitter, I was not overreacting.”
Once he saw the reaction from social media, Lawson believes it is his civil duty to make his voice heard.
“My goal is to raise awareness that this is something that happened and make sure that these rules are clarified to the point that people are educated to know their rights,” Lawson said.
Whitehead believes Lawson will be able to make a difference in the sphere of civil rights after his experience.
“Knowing Jack [Lawson] I think that he will be absolutely driven to look at voting rights more so than he already is because he is a good supporter of civil rights,” Whitehead said.
According to Lawson, he doesn’t view this single experience as a first time voter as what normally happens in greater America. Instead, he believes that one cannot tie a single event to a group of volunteers across the country.
“This is the opposite of deterring me from wanting to vote again,” Lawson said. “This makes me try to exercise my right to vote even more and I plan on voting in the general election this fall.”