Before last November’s national election, Fresno County removed the Unitarian Universalist Church on Alluvial Avenue as a polling location because of concerns over two “Black Lives Matter” banners.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued county Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth, arguing the decision violated the church’s First Amendment rights. “It’s an important free speech issue and it also really lifts up some racial justice issues in Fresno,” says staff attorney Mollie Lee.
Although state elections laws do govern which messages can be posted at polling places, and how far they need to be from ballot boxes, Lee says the banners were in compliance. “This sign wasn’t about a candidate or ballot measure, and it was far outside that 100 foot zone, so there was just no authority for the registrar to take this action,” she says.
At the time of the move, a county representative told the Fresno Bee that voter complaints had raised concerns that the banners may discourage people from voting. The lawsuit reveals, however, that the county received only one complaint, which Lee refers to as “racist.”
Moreover, according to the lawsuit, during the June 2018 primary, after the banners had already been on display for months, voter turnout at the church was 50 percent higher than the county average.
The lawsuit demands the county reinstate the church as a polling place and admit that it violated the church’s free speech rights, as well as pay for the church’s legal fees.
A county representative turned down a request for comment, saying they had not had time to properly review the lawsuit.