HART — A Hart City election worker contacted Oceana’s Herald-Journal Election Day, Nov. 3, when she was relieved of her duties for wearing a T-shirt with the words “Trust Jesus” in large font on it.

The T-shirt in its entirety said, “My heart will TRUST in you JESUS” and referenced the Bible scripture Proverbs 3:5-6. When City Clerk Cheryl Rabe asked election worker Peggy Wittman to turn the shirt inside out or cover it up, Wittman said she would not and was relieved of her duties for the day.

According to Wittman, “On Tuesday, Nov. 3, I reported for work at the voting polls at 6:30 a.m. in the City of Hart. Within the first hour of being open, I was asked by the City Clerk, Cheryl Rabe, to turn my shirt inside out. After declining, she then asked me to wear a sweater and cover it up. I told her I would not. The Chair of the Election Committee, Alice Cunningham, then told me I was ‘relieved of my duties’ and instructed me to talk with the city Manager Lynne Ladner. Lynne explained that my shirt was considered political speech, and I could not wear it while working at the voting polls. The opinion had been solidified by the city’s attorney Mark VanAllsburg, who I asked to speak with directly. He told me himself that my shirt was considered ‘political speech.’”

Rather than leaving the voting precinct, Wittman told election officials that she would be staying. She observed from the public viewing area for the remainder of the day until the building closed at 12 midnight.

“Even though I was disappointed that I was not allowed to work due to my attire, by observing the polls all day I had the opportunity to observe the voting process and noticed some protocols were not being followed. When I took a lunch break, I met with Andy Sebolt, chairman of the Oceana County Republicans who provided me with the name of an attorney in Lansing. The attorney told me that my shirt was not political speech, and I should be allowed to work the polls. I approached Ms. Rabe upon my return to the voting polls, saying I had another legal opinion stating I should be allowed to work. She said that I couldn’t wear anything with a ‘theme.’ She went on to say that the city was standing by their attorney’s legal opinion, and that unless I was willing to change my attire, I could not work. I told her again, I would remain as an observer,” said Wittman.

Wittman said that workers received a very short training prior to election day and received a letter from the city stating what political speech was and that workers could not wear anything that mentioned any candidate running for office. “Prior to election day, I wanted some more training so I went on my own to Mears where my friend who is a deputy clerk showed me how they ran their elections,” said Wittman.

Oceana County Clerk Amy Anderson was asked about election inspector training and said, “Election Inspectors are certified every two years. Each township is responsible for appointing their own election inspectors and they keep track of who needs to be certified before each election. The inspector application does ask them to declare a political party. This year we developed a new PowerPoint that was part of the inspector training in March, August and November. Because of COVID, the training in March and August were abbreviated because so many people needed to be certified prior to those elections. The training we had in November was more in depth and lasted two hours, about 20 people attended that training. I do not recall which training Peg attended. I think it was in August. We do talk about what is considered political speech in training. If anything can be misconstrued as political, it should not be worn. It doesn’t just apply to a ballot issue or a person on the ballot. I would like to add that the election inspectors do a great job. They are very conscientious and want to do a good job. They certainly make my job easier.”

When asked why she decided to wear that particular shirt on election day, Wittman said, “As the election heated up, I watched as it created division in our country and it even created division in our own family. I’d been asking myself, ‘Why are we so divided?’ and ‘Where is God?’ I came to more fully realize that our nation is unique, and if we lose our nation, where will we be? I wore the T-shirt to remind myself and others that we can all trust Jesus, even in our voting.”

Sebolt said, “Ms. Wittman told me she stayed at the polls after being dismissed, sitting in the area reserved for the public. She did not become a ‘poll watcher’ or ‘poll inspector’ as those are very specific roles people are trained for, however, she did sit in an area reserved for the public for the remainder of the day. If in fact, what her shirt said was ‘political speech,’ she shouldn’t have even been within 100 feet of the door that day. You can wear whatever you want to the polls as long as it is not related to any candidate or proposal on the ballot. She was a paid contractor, and I believe she was dismissed unlawfully.”

When asked about election procedures throughout Oceana County, Sebolt said, “I think there is a lack of training and understanding of what is required to have a completely accurate election. Every precinct handles it a bit differently. There is no ‘standardized training,’ or if there is, there is no ‘enforcement’ of it. From what we’ve seen there hasn’t been any widespread fraud in Oceana County, although I did follow up on many complaints, some of which I directed to the state party or the Trump campaign. It’s my job to make sure all Republican votes are counted and protected.”

Sebolt went on to say, “The clerk is required to send me a list of Precinct Election Inspectors. There are to be an equal number of inspectors from each major political party ‘as nearly as possible.’ Being a Republican county, there should be no problem having as many Republicans as there are Democrats. The total is up to each respective election commission. I don’t have a say in approving them, but a county chair is allowed to challenge the appointment of someone if it can be proven that the poll worker is actually a member of, or active in, the other party. From my understanding the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in Hart on election day was five to four respectively and after Ms. Wittman was dismissed, it was five to three.”

The Herald-Journal asked former chairman of the Oceana Democrats and poll volunteer Jim Cunningham what he observed at the polls that day. He said, “I did not witness the situation firsthand. I did see Ms. Wittman sitting in the public polling area and taking notes. I’m a volunteer, not a paid worker. I check in every couple of hours to see if the workers need anything picked up or delivered. Then I return after the polls close and help put the equipment away. I don’t believe this is a Democrat or Republican matter, or even a violation of free speech. The shirt Ms. Wittman was wearing was not appropriate dress for someone working the polls. I will add, she is a member of the Hart Planning Commission and wore the same shirt to their meeting Thursday, Nov. 5.”

Tina Schad, who also worked at the polls on Election Day in Hart said, “Peg and I both signed up to help with elections because we knew they needed more Republican representation that day. I chose to wear a shirt that said, ‘One Nation Under God.’ Before I was allowed to work I also was asked to change or cover my T-shirt up. I was told by the city clerk it could be offensive to some people. I replied, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, right? This is part of our pledge.’ I was asked to sit in the council chambers while city officials made a few phone calls. Shortly after, I was told a call had been made to state leadership in Lansing, and I could wear my shirt while working. While I was waiting to hear the outcome, I told myself the reason I signed up to work the polls was because I wanted to honor and serve my country, but I wouldn’t dishonor God to do it.”

“I’m not in any way seeking a lawsuit. But by being relieved of my duties on election day, I witnessed some inconsistencies with election checks and balances. I simply want to see positive change so we can trust our vote is being tabulated correctly. I think there needs to be more training across the board and a more equal representation of election workers from each political party. I believe the city violated my First Amendment rights of speech and religion by not allowing me to work the polls Nov. 3, and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I stand by my belief that wearing a shirt that says ‘Trust Jesus’ is not political speech. Jesus holds no political office and was not on the ballot,” Wittman said.

Attempts to make contact with Hart City Manager Lynne Ladner for further comment, were unsuccessful.

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