Voters and cameras

October 24, 2002

BALTIMORE COUNTY is home to candidates in two of the three hotly contested Maryland races that are drawing national attention. That means county voters in several polling places will probably encounter a gaggle of reporters and camera crews on the scene to capture the moment when the candidates cast their ballots.

Recording such events does not make for the world's greatest journalism. But it supplies pictures and a few paragraphs of grist for early edition newspapers and midday television broadcasts. And it's part of an American tradition.

Yet the county elections board has been struggling with how to handle such encounters. It even tried to ban cameras from polling places altogether, before learning that would violate state regulations -- not to mention the First Amendment.

Board members are trying to protect the privacy of voters, but they are overreacting and overstepping their bounds.

All this fretting began after the primary when an election judge was so distressed by the arrival at a Towson polling place of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend with an entourage of staff and press, he stopped her from voting and ordered the group out.

Board chairman Robert J. Seidel said he had also heard complaints from elsewhere in the county about voters photographed by family members.

After learning they couldn't keep the press out, the board revised the policy to allow a contingent of reporters and photographers to accompany candidates into the polls under tightly controlled circumstances and with 24 hours' notice.

That doesn't sound unreasonable, but it imposes restrictions on candidates that don't apply to other voters. Further, those restrictions are unenforceable. If Ms. Townsend, her opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., or the two neck-and-neck congressional candidates in the 2nd District fail to provide advance notice, or encounter a press contingent they didn't expect, what happens? Are they denied the right to vote?

No one has a right to disrupt voting. But courtesy and good judgment should be enough to manage the situation. Presidential candidates have been voting with a press corps in tow for many years all over the country without creating havoc.

Regardless of the outcome on Election Day, Baltimore County will be home base for the new governor. Voters there better get used to a little extra fuss.

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