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Why It May Be Illegal to Instagram Your Ballot

In most states, you’re not allowed to show other people your marked ballot.

Update Nov. 4, 2014: The New Hampshire ACLU has filed a lawsuit claiming that a new state law banning "ballot selfies" violates the First Amendment. The New Hampshire law imposes a fine of up to $1000 for a sharing a digital image of a market ballot on social media, the Boston Globe reported.

Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012: This post has been updated.

Proud voters are already posting photos of their ballots on Instagram—sometimes with the names of their chosen candidates filled in. But before you snap a shot of your vote, you might want to check your state laws. As the Citizen Media Law Project points out as part of their guide to documenting the 2012 election, showing your marked ballot to other people is actually illegal in many states.  

Laws against displaying your ballot are motivated by concerns about vote buying, since voters being bribed might need to be prove they voted a certain way.  

While laws vary from state to state, the penalties for showing your ballot can be stiff.

“It’s illegal to display your voted ballot and violators could be convicted of a misdemeanor,” Colorado secretary of state spokesman Richard Coolidge told ProPublica. The penalty, according to Colorado law: a fine of not more than $1000, imprisonment in county jail for not more than one year — or both.

In Michigan and Hawaii, voters who show their ballots to other people can, in certain circumstances, have their votes thrown out.

It’s not clear how these rules apply to sharing a picture of your ballot on the Internet, or whether states would actually prosecute voters for an Instagram shot. Officials from Hawaii have yet to respond to a request for comment.

In Michigan, voters will have their ballots confiscated if they are found taking a photo or video of a ballot in a polling place, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan department of state. Once an exposed ballot is confiscated, voters do not get a new one.

That doesn’t mean the state is monitoring the web for violations. “Certainly, we’re not going to Instagram to find people’s ballots,” he said.

 “Virtually all of these laws are older laws that predate the current technology,” said Jeffrey Hermes, a First Amendment expert who wrote the Citizen Media Law Project’s guide to ballot disclosure rules.

But, he warned in his guide, “It is easy to imagine situations in which the thoughtless posting of a marked ballot on Facebook could result in negative consequences.”

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said that taking a picture of your marked ballot is “bad news.”

“Hard as it is to believe, before the secret ballot there was a lot more vote buying and we don't want more of that now,” he wrote in an email.

A North Carolina elections official told WRAL last week that a “criminal vote-buying scheme” in another state had involved cell phone pictures of completed ballots.

Some states simply prohibit using phones or cameras within a polling place.

Allowing voters to publicly display their ballots might also undermine the culture of the secret ballot, Hermes said. Another factor is the fear that voters might be intimated or swayed by seeing other people’s ballots.  

“These are legitimate concerns,” Hermes said, “but they only extend so far.”  

If voters “want to express what they feel and their experience and the polls, the First Amendment should protect that,” he said.  

Josh Stearns of Free Press, a media and technology advocacy group, told ProPublica he did not see much difference between wearing a t-shirt supporting a candidate, and sharing a photograph of your ballot.

“For a lot of people, voting is a really important life event,” he said.

“We can take our kids into the voting booth, but in many places we can’t take a picture of our ballot.”

Stearns said that allowing individuals to photograph their ballots might also be an important way of providing them with a record of their own vote.

Students interviewed this week by the DePaul University student paper had a range of views on posting ballot photos on Instagram, from approval to disappointment that voting had become “just another thing you can tweet.”

At least one state has recently changed its stance on the issue, Hermes said. Maine repealed its ban on voters showing their own ballots in 2011.

Angela Anderson

Nov. 6, 2012, 11:46 a.m.

Thats silly. Then everyone should remove their bumper stickers and yard signs. They could be “bribed”.

If it’s illegal to “display your ballot” then please explain why the volunteers at my polling site this morning took my screen before I got to the scanning machine…  I was left holding my filled out ballot out in the open in a line waiting to scan.

It’s not silly. You can put up as many bumper stickers and yard signs as you want. As long as the ballot is secret, nobody can ever coerce you in that final, most important moment.

i just saw a news report, and the reporter ask the guy who he voted for, the guy answered openly who he voted for on tv, so is that illegal too? or is just illegal for people to show their the ballot?

It’s like using bumper stickers or telling a friend or speaking onthe news about who you’re voting for. What you say is one thing. Who you actually vote for on your ballot is another. I can see ballot pictures as an ok thing—as long as they’re not filled out yet.

I’m sorry, I grew up assuming that the “secret ballot” concept was meant to protect the voter.  Using it to restrict free expression is more than a bit irritating.  If you want to make your vote public, I don’t see anything different than telling someone who you voted for.

I can accept the idea of “no recordings at the polling place,” by the way, because that protects other voters from being “outed” and self-reporting is collateral damage for a far more important principle.  But to focus on the self-reporting is just stupid and sounds like another excuse for voter suppression.

It should be illegal in all states. The bumper sticker is a totally false analogy.
Someone can be paid or threatened into displaying a certain bumper sticker, but it is their vote that really counts and with this law, they can not present proof of their vote to the would-be payee.

Hamish is dumb

Nov. 6, 2012, 2:09 p.m.

It should not be illegal.
1st amendment, sorry.

Looks like someone’s throwing down in Kings County.

As others above have pointed out, it does make sense to have this rule and enforce it.  Nobody is trying to restrict your free speech.  This is in place to to protect your free speech and all your rights by allowing you to vote your conscience without fear of reprisal.

You can wear t-shirts, slap on bumper stickers and tell the reporters whatever you want, but what you actually mark on your ballot should not be able to be tied back to you in any way.

Jared, you’re not obligated to show anybody anything if you’re not banned from showing it.  Showing someone (or everyone) your ballot is functionally no different than telling someone about your vote, from the protective perspective.

I agree that your vote shouldn’t be traced back to you, but only if you don’t want it to be.  Otherwise, someone voting to make a point against some group threatening reprisals would be silenced or their message reduced by hearsay.

Why is everyone talking about this shit like if someone’s going to find out exactly who posed their ballot like really

What a non-issue. Really, you people should be worried about why the hell the first semi decent president you have in a long time is going “neck and neck” against the most obvious rich elite corporate shill and loony to boot we’ve seen from that deprived land of the F*#&$*#$ed in a long time.

Why have the 1ste and then shit all over it?

I have no secrets. I am proud of my vote and its no different that an exit poll.

It should be illegal: This is the same as showing a copy of a school test with the answers filled out.  You can talk about what answers you’ll give, and wear shirts with the answers while taking the test, and have every campaign sticker you want, but it’s totally different than sharing a photo of the actual test with your answers.  Secret ballots prevent me from knowing for sure I could buy your vote.  Isn’t that reason enough to make it illegal across all states?

Carl Rove and Lee Atwater proved dirty tricks will be tolerated, political lies will not be remembered, and the end justifies everything, so long as you win. So falsehoods proliferate and fact checkers are ignored. All over this country, obstacles have been installed to make voting more difficult for average folks, as if these voters do not deserve to cast one.  People are increasingly partisan; willing to push their beliefs down the throats of others by any means possible. Look at what they’re willing to spend. Soon employers will not just want their employees to attend the political rallies they sponsor, they will want proof their employees have voted the way they want them to.  Please protect the vote by keeping it private.

Why the F would anyone waste their time doing this?  if you want to tell people who you voted for, tell them.  if they don’t believe you, f’em.

If they’re worried about tweets or statuses influencing people, they should then ban posting political opinion. Seems silly, no? Thinking about it, when I look at my Facebook feed, I can clearly see whom is voting for whom. Or whom they would vote for, if they were Canadians, in this instance. During elections, opinions are clearly voiced; Why then would it make a difference if they’re posted or not?

Voxnulla, I have two issues with what you said.

First, Obama was not halfway decent.  He supported and extended every atrocity of the Bush administration and continued to kowtow to corporations and foreign countries for various expedient reasons while Americans continue to rot.  I don’t mean the economy, either, I mean things in his direct control, like Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the NDAA, pardons, and so forth.

Second, it was never neck-in-neck.  The media tried to paint it that way, but anybody giving it the least bit of thought has been predicting Obama by 300 since the Republican debates, and especially when gas prices started dropping.  You just can’t say that on TV without accusations of bias.  But consider:  The only policy difference between the two candidates is that Romney is far more unnaturally interested in uteruses.  That’s it.  So why vote out the incumbent?

Totally nonsense!  Voter suppression.  This is a protection only for the people who are too scared to voice who they voted for. Voter receipts should be ENCOURAGED and also keep a running tally of where the votes are going.  This would eliminate all the voter negligence of tampering IMHO.  People could easily see (in their District/State) whose currently leading as soon as they submit vote) plus know that their vote was correctly made.  That very, precious moment as you submit your vote is so sacred that no one should know??? It would be an option to take the receipt.  GTFOH, you’re just leaving the door cracked for corruption by NOT allowing voter receipts.

You have the right to state, tweet, email, blog, or otherwise shout to the world who you voted for (1st amendment protection). Displaying your personal ballot could jeopardize the integrity of the vote (vote buying, coercion etc). Just because you say who you voted for doesn’t mean that’s what you did.

A secret ballot is essential for preserving democracy.  Who is pushing the meme that people should display their personal ballots to the world?  (Who are they working for?)  I smell BS with this 1st amendment rationalization.

A “receipt” for your vote is meaningless in terms of verifying the election.  The best and perhaps only legitimate way to verify the count is to publicly count hand-marked paper ballots the night of the election in the polling place.

Lora, keep in mind that, up until the ballot is literally out of your hands and out of your sight, you could still be lying.

And again, not banning something is not remotely similar to making it mandatory!  Secrecy protects the people who want protection, not some ephemeral concept of security.

I agree there’s something wrong with a “movement” to make votes public, and a light should be shined down there, but as long as it’s voluntary, I don’t see a problem.  Again, I could take someone else’s post for my own, or I could erase or change my vote after taking the picture.  As proofs of purchase go, it’s a pretty lousy one.

John,

You’re right, you could take a picture of your ballot and then change the vote.  Hadn’t thought of that (dunno why).  In that case a photo would not constitute any sort of proof of how you voted, and there shouldn’t be any reason to ban them.

A(n unedited) videotape might be more of a proof.  In fact, it is considered a good way, perhaps the only way, to document an electronic vote that went haywire: votes that flipped to a different candidate or votes that disappeared.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues in the 2012 election you won't read about elsewhere.

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