ACLU Defends First Amendment Rights of MI Activist Arrested for Election Day Exit Poll

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
January 31, 2000 12:00 am

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DETROIT, MI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has asked a judge to dismiss criminal charges filed against a man arrested for taking an exit poll of voters outside a polling place during the mayoral election last November.

The ACLU of Michigan, on behalf of Humbug Marsh preservationist Blair J. McGowan, says that citizens have a First Amendment right to conduct exit polls to gage public opinion.

“Mr. McGowan was doing nothing more than conducting an exit poll to determine voters’ views on the proposed Humbug development, how they voted in the Mayoral election, and on other related issues — a right clearly protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “He chose to ask voters about controversial environmental preservation issues and for that simple act he was arrested.”

McGowan has long been embroiled in the development controversy concerning the Humbug Marsh in the Down River Detroit area. He worked to stop the large housing development proposed by developer Made In Detroit, Inc. and was conducting an exit poll to determine the views of voters during the mayoral election last year. The Humbug Marsh development issue was a major factor in the election that eventually resulted in the mayor’s defeat.

“I was just conducting an exit poll. That’s my right, and the government should not bully me because of that,” McGowan said.

While conducting the poll, an officer accompanied by the city clerk told McGowan that he was violating a law that prohibits the solicitation of votes outside a polling place. When McGowan showed the officer a copy of the law and explained that he was just conducting an exit poll, the city clerk declared that she was the only person authorized to interpret election law and ordered the officer to arrest McGowan.

The law in question prohibits individuals from soliciting votes within 100 feet of a polling place and requires that the arresting officer observe the illegal activity or obtain a warrant. In this case, the officer neither observed Mr. McGowan soliciting votes nor did he obtain a warrant.

“Mr. McGowan was not soliciting votes. He was just taking an exit poll, which is a protected activity under the First Amendment,” said Kenneth Mogill, an ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney representing Mr. McGowan.

“It is just that simple.”

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