The ban on election observers using cameras at polling locations may soon be lifted in Wisconsin.
That move, which was recommended by the Republican-controlled Legislature, is set to be considered Monday when the state elections board meets to vote on proposed changes to election observer rules.
If the Government Accountability Board approves the change, observers might be able to use cameras to photograph and record voters and others at polling places by the Aug. 12 primary, including people getting ballots and registering to vote.
Earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill allowing observers to get closer to those they are monitoring. The legislation said that observation areas at polling places can be as close as three feet from the tables where voters obtain ballots or register, or from counting locations — rather than the six feet previously required. Observers would need to remain in those areas while filming or taking photographs of voters, and photographing ballots would still be prohibited.
The shift is being considered as part of several changes to election observer rules. It’s just the latest in a series of controversial voting changes pushed by Republicans in recent years, which have included stricter limits to early voting and a voter ID law — currently on hold after a judge found it unconstitutional.
Other election observer changes set to be discussed by the GAB on Monday include requiring observers to show photo identification when they sign in, designating specific inspectors to handle questions, and clarifying that observation areas at nursing homes cannot be located close enough for observers to hear conservations between voters and those assisting them.
The GAB staff found most of the proposed changes are administrative and are “not anticipated to create undue burdens on local election officials.” But elections staff members voiced “significant concern” about the request to lift the ban on cameras, according to a memo to board members from Kevin Kennedy, GAB’s director and general counsel.
“It is the consensus of Board staff that the prohibition on the use of cameras to photograph voters or election inspectors has helped to prevent distractions and disagreements at the polls,” Kennedy wrote. “And that permitting cameras will lead to more instances of conflicts between observers and voters, or between observers and election inspectors. Some voters have also expressed their views that permitting the use of cameras leads to an uncomfortable or harassing voting environment.”
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Kennedy added that while state statutes permit people to observe elections, they don’t specifically say that observers may use cameras to photograph or record others at the polls.
He added that board staff believes allowing cameras will lead to subjective decisions about them at different polling locations.
“Without the specific prohibition on the use of cameras by observers, a chief inspector could bar cameras only if their use caused a disturbance or disruption at the voting location, or if the camera was being used to permit a viewer to see how a ballot was marked,” Kennedy wrote.
Currently only media members and groups doing voting access studies are allowed to photograph and record video.
Kennedy’s memo recommends that the board approve camera use at polling places, but also direct staff to convey to the Legislature that it doesn’t agree with the policy.
Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, chairwoman of the Senate’s election committee, did not respond to requests for comment.
But Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, warned that camera-wielding observers could be “obtrusive and intimidating.”
“When you consider how close that is to somebody, to have a camera pointed in somebody’s face,” Barca said. “This is one more step in making it harder to vote.”