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Guide to Shooting Video or Taking Photos at the Polls

I’ve taken my camera with me to vote for the last several elections resulting in both good and bad experiences. When San Diego used touch-screen machines for the first time, I was able to get a shot using my digital SLR. On another election day, I was stopped and aggressively questioned by a poll worker for trying to take a cellphone photo.

Here’s the problem. The legality of cameras inside polling places isn’t black and white; the laws vary state by state. Plus, some poll workers have only received basic training and will apply their own judgement. The Citizen Media Law Project suggests four things to avoid getting yourself into trouble: follow the rules, be discreet, don’t interfere with voters or the process, respect the buffer zone.

In California, election codes aren’t particularly clear. They prohibit recording within 100 feet of anyone entering or exiting the polling place with the intent to dissuade others from voting. This is where the above guidelines come in; stay low-key and they’ll likely leave you alone. I spoke with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters and they said photography and video will be allowed up to 25 feet away.

While inside the polling area, California Elections Code says you must be in the process of voting (i.e. not using a camera), are limited to 10 minutes, and can’t show your vote to others (i.e. not documenting your vote). While it doesn’t specifically state “no cameras allowed,” legal precedent hasn’t cleared up the specifics. Government officials err on the side of caution. The California Secretary of State’s office says it has “historically taken the position that use of cameras or video equipment at polling places is prohibited, though there may be circumstances where election officials could permit such use.” When I spoke to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, they said they won’t allow cameras inside the polling place except for credentialed journalists.

From a certain angle, this all seems very oppressive. This is a free country and I should have the right to video my vote, right? Yes, but other voters should also have the right not to be surveilled while voting. Poll workers are commissioned to protect the vote and can kick you out, even calling the police if you cause enough of a disturbance. This can all be avoided by sticking to the suggestions mentioned above. Pay attention and be careful not to record other people unwillingly.

Publish Your Photos and Videos on Election Day

  • YouTube and PBS have partnered with Video Your Vote to gather first-hand accounts on election day. They’ve arranged the videos on a map to note voter intimidation and other problems at the polls.
  • The New York Times’ Polling Place Photo Project collects images to create “an archive of photographs that captures the richness and complexity of voting in America.”
  • Video The Vote is a watchdog group organizing people to document voter suppression and other problems.

3 replies on “Guide to Shooting Video or Taking Photos at the Polls”

This is another grey area that has emerged thanks to the shrinking size of our communication tools. I more than understand why the initial rule of no recording in the voting zone was set up. It keeps pesky or distracting activity away. Now that a typical cell phone can make a video for distribution on multiple platforms how does this no recording rule apply? While I was in a supermarket this week I wanted to take a video of something with my Flip Video camera. It occurred to me that had I brought in an obvious video recording device like a big camera (even a GL2 is a big camera compared to a Flip) this would have caused a problem. As it turned out, nobody knew I was recording video. As we make recordings with our small video cameras where will we be bringing up more grey areas? This summer while I was in Los Angeles I recorded footage with my Flip for a video blog. Although I was only using a Flip camera sometimes I frame the shot, do a few takes, run through a moment and other set ups big film / TV people do but on a much smaller scale. Usually they have to get a permit to record, but do I need to get a permit? Is a video blog just as important or judged to be as significant as a network produced television segment? A Flip Video can tell the same story as a big TV crew and potentially reach more viewers. It’s interesting to see where the grey areas pop up when we take our new small communication devices with to record video in a voting booth, a supermarket, or the LA streets where many a 70’s television series was shot.

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