When Diane Wickberg went to vote while wearing her Flagstaff Tea Party T-shirt, poll workers told her to cover the attire. "It feels like our liberties are being taken away a little at a time," Wickberg said. JAKE BACON / ARIZONA DAILY SUN

A conservative group filed a federal lawsuit Monday to make sure voters get to wear their tea party T-shirts to the polls.

The lawsuit stemmed from the case of Coconino County resident Diane Wickberg, a 55-year-old grandmother who was stopped at the polls on May 18 for wearing a T-shirt that said "Flagstaff Tea Party - Reclaiming Our Constitution Now."

State law bans electioneering inside a polling place, and a poll worker said the T-shirt might influence other voters.

Ultimately, after arguing that the T-shirt didn't suggest voting for or against the temporary sales-tax increase that was at issue, and noting that the group hadn't even taken a position on the tax, she was allowed to vote because no other voters were at the polling station at the time.

In the Aug. 24 primary, she was told to cover her T-shirt with a sweater to hide her association with the group, which she joined in April 2009. She said her group meets every Tuesday, and that's why she was wearing the shirt.

The Goldwater Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation filed suit against the county and its recorder in U.S. District Court in an effort to protect Wickberg's right to wear the T-shirt at her polling place in the Nov. 2 general election.

"I debated whether to do it," Wickberg said, "but I decided to, because it feels like our liberties are being taken away a little at a time."

Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater think tank, said barring the shirt is an overly broad interpretation that infringes on Wickberg's freedom of speech.

Local tea party organizer Trent Humphries said he'd heard no reports of any similar occurrences locally, but he agreed with the Goldwater Institute. "It's the same thing as someone wearing a union shirt," he said. "As long as it doesn't advocate to vote a certain way or for a certain person, it should be allowed."

Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens said she could not spell out at exactly what point the language on someone's T-shirt - or any other clothing button or sign - becomes forbidden. "It's a fine line," Owens said, and poll workers evaluate it on a "case-by-case basis."

Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson said it's his opinion that prohibited materials at the polls are those that expressly endorse or call for the defeat of a candidate or a ballot initiative. "A single tea party T-shirt sounds harmless enough," he said.

Before filing the suit, the Goldwater Institute asked Secretary of State Ken Bennett to give county election officials some guidance in regulating such attire. But in early August, the office sent a letter to the institute refusing to issue such a blanket statement.

"This is because every election is unique and every evaluation of a claim of electioneering must be fairly analyzed in the context of each election," the letter states.

Jim Drake, the assistant secretary of state, said it's not enough to simply note that the tea party isn't endorsing a particular cause or candidate. He envisioned a case in which a candidate might dub himself the tea party favorite, for example.

"We understand it's made up of unaffiliated groups," Drake said, "but individual candidates have co-opted their name and platform."

Howard Fischer, of Capitol Media Services, contributed to this story. Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or rbodfield@azstarnet.com