Wisconsin photographer’s guide to election day coverage

by Michael P. King, Secretary, Wisconsin News Photographers Association

Next Tuesday, June 5, droves of Wisconsin voters will head to the polls to decide the political fates of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in the historic gubernatorial recall election. In almost ritualistic fashion, reporters and photojournalists across the state will be heading out to the polling locations in their coverage areas to document the occasion.

Although voting is an act of citizenship done in public, there are valid privacy concerns since ballot secrecy is considered sacrosanct. It’s important that journalists are able to do their jobs freely and thoroughly, but without interfering with the administration of the elections, or invading voters’ privacy.

So I consulted Reid Magney, spokesman for Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board which provides oversight of the state’s election, ethics, and campaign finance laws. He referred me to an October 2010 GAB publication entitled “Wisconsin Election Observers Rules-at-a-Glance.”

“Having a printed copy of that brochure in your camera bag might be a good tip for your members,” said Magney. A special section in this tri-fold brochure outlines what “communications media” members must do in order to film or photograph at the polls.

“The rule used to be that you needed permission from the chief inspector and anyone else at the polling place before you could take their pictures. That has changed,” said Magney. “Now, you just need to go find the chief inspector, identify yourself, and shoot away.”

Here are a few specifics to keep in mind:

1) Who qualifies as a member of “communications media” is defined by law: The full text of Wisconsin §11.01(5) reads: “Communications media” means newspapers, periodicals, commercial billboards and radio and television stations, including community antenna television stations.

2) Video and still cameras are acceptable.

3) Ballot-marking is not to be photographed: “Don’t show voters marking ballots,” says Magney. “If you’re shooting ballots being put into a machine, don’t show anything indicating how the ballot is marked.” In other words, do not photograph (either close-up or from a distance) the pen or pencil marking the ballot, and do not photograph a visible result of that act.

4) Any disruption can lead to being tossed: Magney emphasizes that “the chief inspector has the power to toss someone causing a disturbance out.” Exercise common sense, and show respect and kindness towards those you are photographing or filming. “Getting in people’s faces, even if you’re not showing how they voted, could be considered disruptive,” he added.

Magney offered assistance to journalists encountering problems doing their job at the polls. They may contact him at GAB on Election Day. “I’ll do my best to straighten things out,” he said.

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