Is it illegal to take a photo in a polling station?

UPDATE: CNN has had live streaming video from inside a Los Angeles polling station throughout today.

DSC00051.jpgLike numerous other Los Angeles voters (including LAist’s Andy Sternberg) I was confused a little about how to vote as an independent in today’s election. To try and capture the problem, I pulled out my camera and snapped some shots of my ballot and the ink-a-dot machine at the St. Thomas Episocopal Church polling station (at Hollywood & Gardner). As I prepared to leave the voting booth, an older lady approached me and, disapprovingly, asked what I was taking photos of. I said my ballot. She said I couldn’t do that.

I should have said I was finished anyway and left it at that, but I’m pretty passionate about First Amendment rights, so I told her that she was incorrect. She called for help, and another, younger guy showed up, who told me I couldn’t take pictures. I repeated my assertion, and asked if they had any documention to support their statement. Finally, the polling center director walked over, who repeated that she was sure I couldn’t take photos. When I asked again for documentation, she said she didn’t have to show me anything and just had to listen to her. The guy told her, “maybe we should confiscate his camera.”

Both ladies expressed their confusion over why I’d ever want to take such a photo. The older lady asked why, and I responded that it was none of her business. I then asked for some clarification on how to fill out the ballot, and the director told me she couldn’t help me and walked away.

When I arrived home a few minutes later, I immediately tried finding any law that would back up their claims. I knew that any form of voter intimidation was illegal, and taking photos of other voters might fall in those boundaries, but I was taking a photo of my own ballot within the confines of my voting booth.

I also found that there was a national project underway by the New York Times encouraging voters to take photos of themselves voting, so I was pretty sure photography at the polls wasn’t a Federal Law.

I called the California “Voter Fraud Hotline”, and as far as they knew photography was legal, and so far I’ve had no luck finding an L.A. county or city law on the matter. Phone operators at a national voter hotline also couldn’t find that I’d done anything illegal, and were very concerned that a polling center director would refuse to help me with figuring out if I had voted correctly.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on this, but unless I can find language of the actual law, I’m of the belief that I did nothing wrong… besides not being sure if my vote will be counted.

Note: the part of the California Election Code that people bring up is the right to vote:

WITHOUT BEING SOLICITED, PHOTOGRAPHED, VIDEOTAPED OR OTHERWISE RECORDED, and without anyone campaigning or trying to influence your vote in any way, when you are within 100 feet of the entrance to the polling place, including while you are waiting to vote.  Cal. Elec. Code  ยง 18541

But this by no means you can’t take a photo in a polling center at all, let alone of your own ballot.

22 Replies to “Is it illegal to take a photo in a polling station?”

  1. if there is such a law, the intention is probably to help protect people from being forced by a third party to take a picture of their ballot so it can be confirmed that they voted the “right” way.

  2. As I understand it (though I can’t cite anything off the top of my head), the laws in place protecting voter privacy and preventing voter intimidation would cover this.

    The reasoning is that you shouldn’t be able to walk out of the polls with any evidence of WHO you voted for. That protects you from being influenced by a candidate who threatened to harm you if you didn’t vote a certain way. It also prevents somebody from offering to pay you if you to vote a certain way.

    Obviously we all get a stub that says we voted (and a goofy sticker, too!), but that’s all we should be able to walk out of there with.

    I see nothing wrong with taking photos at the polls, so long as it doesn’t show who you voted for. The list of who voted is public record, anyway, and available (regularly updated throughout the day) at every polling place to anybody who asks. All photos (except of market ballots) would do is prove that the right people were at the right poll, and only serves to further protect the voting process.

  3. If you watch CNN.com’s live video stream #3, you can see unsuspecting Angeleno tushies waddling toward the polling booths at some “Los Angeles Polling Station.”

    Then again, CNN already knows who is gonna win, right?

  4. I took a picture of my cousin voting at a polling place in Ontario. No one told me anything. A poll worker simply asked if it was her first time voting (it wasn’t).

  5. Where the hell did these paper ballots where you complete the arrows in black pen come from? I wish i took a photo to illustrate how stupid looking they are

  6. I’d love to see a definitive answer on this. It’s a reoccurring theme lately for authority figures to say, “NO PHOTOGRAPHY!” and then not be able to back up their instructions with the specifics of why. I had a similar situation downtown taking pictures of building from the sidewalk – a friend of mine had it happen to him taking pictures of the Beverly Centre from across the street – and I’ve read similar accounts.
    – You’re taking pictures and someone in some sort of uniform walks up and says, “NO PICTURES!”
    – Why?
    – Because 9/11! Because security! Because I said so!
    – Um, sir, I understand if you think I’m trespassing, but there is nothing illegal in taking pictures. Is there some law that prohibits me from doing so?
    – It’s what the security memo told us. NO PICTURES! 9/11 – security – terrorists!… blah blah…

    After one occasion I called the Wilshire Division LAPD station and tried to talk with the sergeant on duty – I explained what happened and he cut me off by saying, “In those situations you should respect authority!” It took me about ten minutes to convince him that I was not a trouble maker and didn’t want to give the LAPD frivolous work to do, but that I simply wished to know what the laws were so I wouldn’t break one [that’s how I put it to him anyhow as he was suspicious I was some Constitutional nut, imagine that]. After all that he said he didn’t know.

    I did find this online [ http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm ], but I would love to get a confirmation from some sort of city official on what the deal is. Maybe it’s in the interest of authority figures to leave the question vague as most people will just obey when rousted and not pose a challenge.

  7. Aartvark, on a sidenote, police are not allowed to loiter in or around a polling station.

    But I’m with you – I’m not a troublemaker by any means, and will defer to authority on private property without second guessing.

  8. The last time I was a poll worker (2004 president election) we were told at the training that yes, people can film, but only if the person being filmed says its ok (and they must be asked in a languages they understand and not imitated) and the camera person can’t take photos that would show whom or what the voter is voting for.
    We did have one voter who complained about a camera man from a Spanish language TV station filming. The voter was not being filmed; in fact, when he went nuts, the camera man was filming the Spanish speaking pool workers (both young students, one 18 years old the other 20, the first election they were able to vote in. They were so excited, it was so cute).
    The irate voter then left the polling place (a rec center), vowing to bring back the cops ect. He did return some 5 hours later, drunk. And happy.

  9. Elections code Sec. 18541 reads:


    18541. (a) No person shall, with the intent of dissuading another person from voting, within 100 feet of a polling place, do any of the following:
    […]
    (3) Photograph, videotape, or otherwise record a voter entering or exiting a polling place.

    …so unless you’re photographing a voter “with the intent of dissuading [them] from voting”, there shouldn’t be any problem as far as I can see.

    Poll workers are issued comprehensive documentation on how the polling place is to be run; if they claim there’s a rule against photography at the polls, they should be able to show you the rule in their guidebook.

    If they’re trying to enforce a ‘rule’ that’s not in their guidebook, they’re overstepping their authority.

    After many years of being a poll worker, I have to say that most poll workers have no idea what they’re doing, and couldn’t find their asses with both hands.

    When I was new, I frequently irritated my fellow poll clerks by insisting on actually following the rules, rather than just doing things the way they all vaguely half-remembered having done them in the past.

  10. I see from your photo, your polling place had the plastic machines to put your ballot in?

    Ours didn’t @ 10:30AM – we had to fill in the bubbles by hand by matching the numbers to the numbers on a sample ballot.

  11. Back in the days when booths were more substantial, you wouldn’t have had an issues. With the lame tiny things they have now . . . .

    Rather than get in an altercation with a volunteer who is, truthfully, likely doing the best she can to protect other people’s right to vote without fear of reproach of intimidation, you should’ve just said, right, got what I needed, sorry to bother you, and left, which is what you said you almost did.

    It’s hardly a “first amendment” issue, because that lady isn’t congress and she wasn’t making a law.

    polling place volunteers are frequently wrong about stuff, but just as frequently this is innocent confusion. if more people would volunteer to work polling places and people bothered to educated themselves about the process, we’d cut down on a lot of problems. it’s seldom a conspiracy, however. and i hate seeing volunteers get bitched out when they don’t know better. lord knows i’ve had discussions with them – and i used to work for an election law firm.

    just leave next time.

  12. I wholeheartedly disagree, CD.
    Indeed, I stood my ground a little out of spite, but anytime someone falsely claims you can or can’t take a photo or be somewhere it is an encroachment on rights.
    I’ve been a pollworker before, so I’m more than aware of their “volunteership,” but see no need to unnecessarily tell voters what they can or can’t do. These people were on a power trip.
    Sorry, can’t dismiss this as mere “confusion.” They were INSISTENT I was in the wrong when, in fact, I wan’t bothering anyone else, let alone breaking any law.
    And I didn’t want to “just leave” because to this moment I’m not sure if I filled the ballot out correctly, and I’m far from alone. Instead of helping me, they walked away, pissed off about the camera.

  13. This lit the world on fire. Looking at it I probably would have just told them I was doing one of your stuff only so they wouldn’t have a chance to misinterpret. I don’t see what the deal was with your own ballot, lord knows I’ve done worse. Worse like collect no camera allowed signs.

  14. Well David, chalk it up to weinies and let it ride. If all I see there says you could and you gave them fair warning, let them be the weinie and just move on. :)

  15. I’m thinking maybe you should call CNN. They might be interested to know that your vote might not count because no one would help you — and they might be able to clear up the camera thing, too.

  16. Great minds think alike – I sent an email to folks in publicity at CNN earlier asking how they were able to get that camera in there, with a link to this post.
    That said, I’m just one of many. Numerous other bloggers have been confused about the vote. LAist has some great coverage on this, in particular.

  17. Good for you for standing up to authority and asking to see the prohibition in writing. Over the past 7 years, I’d say there’s been a little too much caving into authority when the authority wasn’t acting legally anyway. It would make sense that one cannot photograph another voter or her ballot at a polling place, because that is arguably being done to intimidate (it would take a trial and a judge after the fact to determine the photographer’s intent). Just imagine the mischief that the Rovians would have with that down South. But it makes no sense to prohibit someone from photographing their own ballot, as appears to be reflected in the law cited above.

  18. I’ve been lucky — during the 2003 recall election I took a ton of pics (how could you not?! It was a circus!) and no one said anything. I took more pics of the ballot yesterday — although very subtly, sneaking my camera out of my pocket — and no one noticed. Got a good shot of the troubling double bubble ballot over at Franklin Avenue.

  19. David,

    The pollworker was wrong in not letting you take photos. Polling places are public. The only thing you can’t do is photograph voters without their permission. CNN probably asked the voters if they minded being filmed.

    Next time, to resolve your dispute, ask the inspector (the woman who was in charge of the polling place) to call her coordinator, who is in charge of several precincts in the area. The inspector can call them on their county-provided cell phone.

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