Media law non-profit offers updated guide for newsgathering at polls

The Citizen Media Law Project is offering online its updated guide on laws regarding newsgathering at the polls. -DB

October 28, 2009
By Sam Bayard

Voters head to the polls again on November 3 to cast their ballots in mayoral [1], city council [2], and even a handful of gubernatorial [3] elections. In addition, there are some important ballot measures up for consideration, like the referendum in Maine seeking repeal of the state’s newly enacted statute legalizing same-sex marriage [4]. Sure, it’s an off-year for Congress [5] and it doesn’t have the historic dimensions of the last election [6], but there are still plenty of reasons for ordinary voters and journalists alike to document the day and gather news at the polls, including to root out fraud [7]and other problems [8] in election procedures [9].

To help out, the Citizen Media Law Project has updated its legal guide pages [10] on laws regulating recording activities in and around polling places on Election Day. Our specific focus is on the laws that impact voters’ ability to document their own voting experiences through video and still photography, as well as their ability to carry out other newsgathering functions, such as interviewing other voters outside of polling places.

The Documenting Your Vote [10] page gives some general guidelines and practical tips on how to stay out of legal trouble when engaging in newsgathering activities on Election Day. It features a short video we created last year [11] as part of PBS and YouTube’s Video Your Vote [12] project:

Because there is no single, national law regulating polling place activities, it is difficult to generalize about what you can and cannot do on Election Day. If you are interested in using a recording device at a polling place, it is critically important to consult your state’s law in order to make sure that your proposed activities are legal.

Many states, including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia, expressly prohibit the use of photographic and recording equipment inside polling places. Also, a majority of states have laws that prohibit public display of a voter’s own marked ballot. Although designed to stop voter fraud, they may apply to more innocent activities like posting photos or video on the Internet for the sake of reporting or personal documentation.

To assist readers in negotiating these restrictions, we’ve updated our chart summarizing the law [13] in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, the State Law: Documenting Your Vote [14] page contains updated contact information for election officials in every state and links to the state statutes that impact polling place activities. While state laws have not changed a great deal since last year’s election, we made a number of changes to these legal guide materials, so they are worth a look even if you consulted them last year.

Copyright 2009 Citizen Media Law Project