Camera ban in polling places at issue

Baltimore County told to reconsider its policy

October 17, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Responding to a conflict between an election judge and the entourage of reporters and others attempting to watch Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend vote in last month's primary, Baltimore County's board of elections decided at its last meeting to ban cameras from polling places.

But the move appears to violate state regulations, which allow media organizations to bring cameras into polling places. The state board of elections has written to the county, advising officials that the policy runs afoul of the rules and asking them to reconsider it.

Baltimore County Election Director Jacqueline McDaniel said she and the board will review the state's concerns and decide what to do as soon as they can. But she and the members feel strongly that they must be able to limit disruptions in polling places.

McDaniel said the board received several complaints about disturbances at polling places in the primary, not only the one involving Townsend. McDaniel said she and the board felt that banning cameras would make voters feel more comfortable.

"I believe the board's first priority is to ensure everyone the right to vote who is registered without any encumbrance or anything else going on in a polling place, and that's what we try to do," McDaniel said.

The county board's president, Robert J. Seidel, was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

When Townsend attempted to vote in the Sept. 10 primary at Ridge Ruxton School in Towson, Democratic judge Omar Pulliam, a 16-year veteran of elections, deemed her entourage of reporters and staffers to be disruptive.

Pulliam ordered the group out of the polling place and threatened to call the police if they didn't comply. While the incident was going on, Pulliam told Townsend to stop voting, though she was eventually allowed to continue.

Donna J. Duncan, director of the state's election management division, said an election judge has the power to remove unauthorized people from a polling place, but banning news cameras is not an option under state regulations.

"We need to find a happy medium here," she said.

Election officials in other counties said they allow cameras into polling places and have never had a problem. Officials said news organizations need to be sure to set up their shots in such a way that they don't compromise voters' privacy, but that doesn't mean they can't be inside polling places at all.

"I've been in the business 32 years, and I've always had no problem having the press come in, especially when I was in Prince George's and the governor [Glendening] voted in his precinct in University Park," said Robert J. Antonetti Sr., who is now Howard County's election director. "The press always came, and, nationally, you always have a picture of a senator or the president or somebody casting a vote."

Montgomery County provides a guide to media organizations on how to cover activity at a polling place, said Election Director Margaret A. Jurgensen.

The guidelines specify that members of the media should contact the chief election judge upon entering a polling place and discuss with him or her where to place cameras and lighting to minimize the disturbance to voters.

The rules also prohibit reporters from conversing with voters in the polling place or taking a picture in such a way that would endanger the secrecy of a ballot. Jurgensen said Montgomery has had no problems.

In rural counties, where media presence at polling places is a rarer occurrence, election officials took a skeptical view of the practice. Caroline County Election Director Sandra M. Logan said that taking a picture of a candidate voting seems innocent, but some people might consider it to be like campaigning in a polling place, which is prohibited.

"People are going to say it's like campaigning because you're taking that person and bringing all this attention to that person. It's almost like saying `Vote for me, vote for me, vote for me,'" she said.

"I can understand why the media would want to do something like that, but I am torn between something that would seem innocent on the surface but would have a different connotation to other people."

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