Why leave room for foul play? The 10-Foot Requirement

By Lance Woods:

Pennsylvania’s decision to continue to keep the press from entering polling stations draws an arbitrary line and leaves room for foul play by ensuring that the voting process is not as transparent as possible.

The 2012 election marked the first time that the Commonwealth would attempt to enforce its voter identification law. The law required all eligible voters to present an authorized government ID at the polls. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters’ wanted to gain access to the polling stations to observe the ID law, but were prevented from doing so due to a section of the Pennsylvania Election Code. The code stated that:

“[a]ll persons, except election officers, clerks, machine inspectors, overseers, watchers, persons in the course of voting, persons lawfully giving assistance to voters, and peace and police officers, when permitted by the provisions of this act, must remain at least ten (10) feet distant from the polling place during the progress of the voting.”

The Allegheny County Election Division read section 3060(d) to include members of the press and thus the reporters could not enter the polling stations. In PG Publishing Co. v. Aichele, the Post-Gazette then initiated an action against the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the County Board of Elections by challenging the constitutionality of section 3060(d) on First Amendment and Equal Protection grounds. On January 15, 2013, the Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of the Post-Gazette’s lawsuit and refused to follow the neighboring Sixth Circuit decision that permits press inside of polling stations. Less than a year later, the voter ID law that served as the catalyst of the Post-Gazette’s action would be struck down, however the press is still prohibited from coming within ten-feet of the polls.

Initially, it is easy to understand why a law that keeps the press 10-feet from the entrance of polling stations may not cause serious harm. At ten feet, the press is not prevented from monitoring voters entering and exiting the polls. Furthermore, in reaching its decision the court in PG Publishing Co. v. Aichele, reasoned that a long-standing trend away from openness governs modern elections. However, although the press is not far removed from the voting polls there is an unjustifiable physical barrier between the press and voters.

As cited by the Aichele court, there may be times where public access to the polls may give rise to voter intimidation and suppression, however, this argument holds little weight because the Post-Gazette merely wanted access for its licensed reporter’s and not for the public at large. In addition, technology and social media essentially makes everyone with a cell phone a reporter. The selfie is often abused for insignificant actions (I’m riding the bus < I’m voting) so it is unrealistic to expect that voters and poll workers will refrain from snapping photos while in the polling station, though greater than our desire to prove to Facebook that we voted should be transparency in the voting process. Hoping to solve this problem, State Sen. State Sen. Judith Schwank (D), plans to introduce a bill that would permit credentialed media to enter a polling place in a manner that does not disrupt the voting process. According to State Sen. Schwank, this would dispel concerns and possibly increase participation in our media conscious society.

The voter ID law is no longer applicable in the Commonwealth, however, that does not ensure that voters will not still face discrimination at the polls. The presence of the press at the polls would do for the voting experience what body cameras aim to do for the police department. With the cameras rolling everyone can be held accountable for their actions. As long as the press is not actually going into the booth with a voter the benefits of transparency far outweigh and harm caused.

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