Voters at the Exeter polls got an eyeful Tuesday when a woman who was told she couldn’t wear a politically themed shirt whipped it off and voted topless.
The unidentified woman cast the bare-breasted ballot after showing up at the Talbot Gymnasium polls wearing a shirt with images of President Donald Trump and the late Sen. John McCain and the legend “McCain Hero/Trump Zero.”
Town Moderator Paul Scafidi told the woman, who appeared to be about 60, that she would have to remove the shirt or cover it up because of laws against electioneering inside polling places — though Trump’s name wasn’t on Tuesday’s state primary ballot.
When the woman, who was wearing a mask, pointed out someone wearing a shirt with an American flag, she was told that was different.
“She said, ‘You want me to take my shirt off? That’s what you want?’” Scafidi recalled.
He told the woman it was her choice, and before he could say anything more, the shirt was gone. She was not wearing a bra.
“Boom! The shirt’s off,” he said, “and she’s standing there saying, ‘How’s this?’”
Scafidi said he responded, “Whatever you want, ma’am.”
Following the awkward encounter, Scafidi said the woman got her ballot and voted.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the curtains were removed from the voting booths to eliminate more surface touching as a safety precaution, which enabled people to see the backs of voters as they marked ballots.
Exeter Select Board member Lovey Roundtree Oliff got a full view of the incident from her post at a ballot machine.
“It wasn’t like a quick escape to the closet,” Roundtree Oliff said.
Fortunately, Scafidi said, the incident occurred during a mid-afternoon lull, with about 15 voters at the polls. Scafidi said he also didn’t notice any children around.
“If the place was packed like a normal presidential election, I might have had a different thought about it,” he said, adding he also would have felt differently if the woman tried to “flaunt it.”
Scafidi, who has been involved in Exeter’s elections as a town official for nearly 30 years, said this encounter was a first.
“Hopefully it won’t happen again,” he said.
Exeter voter Andrea Shine got a good laugh as she watched things unfold.
“I think we all kind of needed it. With everything going on in the world, it’s like, who cares? You couldn’t even see many reactions (from voters) because there were masks on their faces,” she said.
Shine said the woman did appear to cover her breasts with her shirt as she stood at the plastic barrier while the ballot clerk looked up her name.
Police weren’t nearby.
Roundtree Oliff, who said the incident lasted about 20 seconds, did not consider it a criminal act that required police intervention.
“This is not the battle,” she said.
Exeter Police Chief Stephan Poulin confirmed that police didn’t get involved and said the interaction with Scafidi was “brief” and “did not interrupt anyone’s voting process.”
Town Manager Russ Dean said the town does not have an ordinance prohibiting female toplessness in public.
The state’s public indecency law states that someone can be found guilty of indecent exposure and lewdness if the person “fornicates, exposes his or her genitals, or performs any other act of gross lewdness under circumstances which he or she should know will likely cause affront or alarm.”
Select Board member Julie Gilman also said police involvement wasn’t required.
“By the time the interaction occurred there was no action for them to take,” Gilman said. “If she wandered around the (polls) you could make the case of public nudity that was inappropriate.”
Women going topless in New Hampshire is an issue that’s grabbed headlines before. Three women who were part of the “Free the Nipple” campaign were arrested in 2016 in Laconia after they prompted complaints when they removed their tops at a beach. The city has an ordinance that prohibits the “showing of female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple.” The women’s convictions were later upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Dan Hynes, a Manchester lawyer who represented those women, said the voter at the Exeter polls violated no state laws.
“Under state law it’s completely legal what she did, at least as far as any public indecency,” he said.
Hynes said the voter didn’t engage in any criminal conduct and that a woman being topless at the polls also wouldn’t create a safety issue.
Hynes also took issue with election officials demanding that the woman remove her shirt for alleged electioneering, because Trump’s name wasn’t on the ballot.