New Castle News

Columns

September 4, 2012

Mitchel Olzak: Photo inside polling place runs afoul of election law

NEW CASTLE — It was primary election morning and I desperately needed a photo.

Here at the New Castle News, we’ve made an effort, historically, to snap a quick photo at a polling place on election morning and run it in that day’s paper, to remind readers of their civic responsibility.

On this particular morning a few years back, I had volunteered to grab a shot. But it was an off-year election with virtually no contested primary races. Every voting site I drove by gave the impression of being deserted. No volunteers stood outside distributing literature, pens and notepads.

I looked at the empty streets and sidewalks, half expecting a tumbleweed to roll by.

But in the journalism trade, we’re trained get the story. So at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, I walked into the building, figuring I could get a shot of poll workers looking bored.

Just as I was getting ready to do this, I heard a set of footsteps approaching in the hallway. Sure enough, almost as if on cue, an honest-to-God voter entered stage left.

I identified myself and asked if I could take his photo as he signed in. The voter and a poll worker graciously agreed. I took my photo, then took off for The News, deadline looming.

The photo made it on the front page of that day’s paper. It may not have been gripping journalism, but it served the purpose of helping to serve our readers.

The next day, I received a call from Ed Allison, Lawrence County’s director of elections, who noted he had seen the photo in the paper.

I assumed he was calling to compliment me on my framing of the subjects or my astute management of depth of field. Instead, Allison informed me I had violated Pennsylvania election law by entering a polling place for purposes other than voting.

Resisting the urge to run for the border to avoid prosecution, I instead questioned this assessment. After all, I had made no effort to conceal my motives, and no one objected to my presence.

Plus, over the years, I have seen plenty of photos and videos of people — especially candidates — casting ballots in Pennsylvania elections. How is this possible if news photographers aren’t allowed to capture these moments?

Allison acknowledged this aspect of election law is unevenly enforced in Pennsylvania. But he intended to follow it to the letter in Lawrence County. In other words, don’t do it again.

To be fair, Allison has a genuine interest in protecting the integrity of polling places under his watch. You may not be aware, but there are lots of nut jobs of assorted ideological stripes out there just waiting for the chance to alter outcomes.

But journalists are given the very real task of telling the stories of their communities. And on Election Day, voting is a big deal. Keeping much of it behind closed doors clashes with the concept of a free society.

It turns out I’m not the only one in the news business chafing at election barriers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has filed suit in federal court, objecting to restricted access at polling places in Allegheny County. The suit cites the press’ First Amendment rights as reason to be allowed to examine the voting process firsthand.

Amid a hotly contested presidential race and a new state law requiring voters to identify themselves, what transpires at the polls in Pennsylvania this fall is something worth knowing.

But will we?

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