We expect that a number of individuals, including many journalists, plan to report from the polling place on November 6th. Photography and video can be critically important to document the election process and to preserve a record of any procedural improprieties and interference with voter rights. At the same time, however, voting is a very private matter, and attempts to record at the polling place are subject to strict regulation to safeguard voter privacy, protect against voter intimidation, and to ensure the proper functioning of the voting process.
In order to protect voters from interference and intimidation, state governments have enacted a complex array of election laws that regulate what activities are permitted at polling places on Election Day. These laws can affect your ability to shoot video or take photographs at a polling place, even if your purpose is just to document your own voting experience.
In the vast majority of states, these laws make a distinction between what you can do inside a polling place and what you can do outside a polling place. The laws are more restrictive when it comes to activities inside and within certain buffer zones around the entrance, which are typically 100 feet from the entrance or interior voting area. Outside of the polling place and these buffer zones, your ability to document your voting experience is much freer.
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. You must consult your state's law in order to make sure that your proposed activities are legal. Nevertheless, the following four general guidelines can help you stay within the law while documenting your vote.
Guidelines for Avoiding Legal Trouble1. Follow the Rules
If you want to take photographs or shoot video inside your polling place, you must be cautious to avoid violating the law. Election laws are serious business – you could be removed from the polling place and even subject to criminal penalties. Some states like Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas expressly prohibit the use of photographic and recording equipment inside polling places. In addition, a majority of states have laws prohibiting the disclosure of your own marked ballot, although the details of these laws vary significantly.
In these states, you should respect the law and refrain from recording or photographing inside. In other states, the election laws are not clear regarding the use of personal photographic and video equipment.
On our State Law: Documenting the Vote 2012 page you will find additional information and links to resources to help you determine where your state falls on this issue. If are unsure as to what is permitted, contact your local election officials or ask a poll worker.
2. Be Discreet
Even if you are permitted to take photographs or video inside, you should be discreet and sensitive to the concerns of poll workers and other voters. The smaller your equipment is, the better. You are more likely to get permission, and less likely to intimidate other voters, if you use a cell phone camera, rather than a bulky on-the-shoulder video camera or a fancy SLR with a huge telephoto lens. It will also help if you stick to documenting general activity or your own experience rather than documenting the activities of others. In addition, if you are documenting your own vote, don’t linger inside the polling place after you’ve cast your vote. Do your civic duty and then proceed out of the building in an orderly fashion.
While it is best to be discreet, you should not lie to poll workers or police officers about what you are doing. If asked whether you are taking photographs or video, tell the truth; you will be in greater trouble if you are caught lying to state officials.
3. Don’t Interfere With Voters or Disrupt the Process
Keep in mind that all states prohibit activities that interfere with the voting process or intimidate voters, and poll workers and other voters might see your photographing or videotaping as disruptive or intimidating. You should never photograph or film someone else’s ballot or get too close to other voters with your camera. If a voter objects, stop filming that person immediately. Don’t try to interview other voters inside the polling place and avoid any appearance of trying to solicit or influence someone else’s vote. Leave your buttons, stickers, hats, and other party paraphernalia at home.
4. Respect the Buffer Zone Outside
You can do more reporting outside of polling places; still, there are some things to keep in mind. Many states have restricted buffer zones: typically 100 feet outside the entrance to the polling place, but states vary. In these zones, you generally can’t loiter, interfere with voters, block the entrance, or engage in any campaigning activity. Although many state laws do not specifically mention filming in these zones, it’s probably safer to shoot outside of the buffer zone, unless you’ve confirmed that your state law allows it.
These buffer zones may be marked off with signs, flags, or a chalk line. Or you may be able to determine where the line is by looking for where other people are engaging in electioneering activity freely, or where members of the traditional media or exit pollsters are set up.
Outside the buffer zone, you can film freely, use a larger camera, and interview voters. You should still be courteous to others and make every effort not to interfere with anyone’s ability to get to the polls. When interviewing a voter, first get the voter's permission. If possible, get written permission or record verbal permission on video. Explain to the voter what you intend to do with the video (such as uploading it to the Internet) and get their permission to use their name and likeness for that purpose.
The following short video was created for the 2008 national elections by our project's former director, David Ardia. It still serves as a great overview of what to keep in mind while recording at or near a polling place.
If you are interested in sharing your experiences at the polls, we'd also like to highlight My Fair Election, a project which solicits the public to give feedback to their voting precincts about the conduct of the election. For more, check out the Voting Information Project's summary. Also, the project Our Vote Live will be tracking voter issues across the country, and Video the Vote will be coordinating efforts to document conditions at polling places.