Federal court lifts Michigan ban on ballot selfies

9NEWS at 6 a.m. 10/25/16.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (USA TODAY) - Get ready to say CHEESE.

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff ruled Monday that Michigan’s prohibition of ballot selfies was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

“The Court agrees with the Plaintiff that the interests in the integrity of the electoral process can be secured in a more reasonable manner than the blanket prohibition on citizens' photography,” Neff ruled.

“The prohibition on ballot selfies reaches and curtails the speech rights of all voters,” she added, citing a similar New Hampshire ruling on the issue.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids on behalf of Joel Crookston of Portage, Mich., who took a selfie of his ballot in 2012 and posted it on social media without knowing that it was illegal and punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $500 fine.

“How many laws threaten to punish people for doing innocuous things,” said Steve Klein, an attorney for Crookston. “To unequivocally state who you voted for is among the most powerful forms of free speech. It’s more powerful than a yard sign because a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Klein noted that the ballot selfie is just that, a photograph of a ballot. A voter still isn’t allowed to hold up their ballot in a polling precinct and show other people.

Michigan's ban on showing a completed ballot has been in place since 1891 when ballots were first printed by county election officials instead of political parties.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, through Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, quickly filed a motion Monday afternoon saying that they intend to appeal the ruling to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and asked for an injunction against implementing the ruling until after the Nov. 8 election.

“Especially since the Nov. 8, 2016, presidential election is now just 15 days away, this Court’s preliminary injunction threatens the integrity and smooth running of the upcoming election,” the motion read.

Schuette said it’s not unconstitutional to ban photography in polling places as a means to discourage vote-buying and coercion, as well as voter intimidation.

“Crookston would not be irreparably harmed by a stay,” the appeal said. “He has ample alternatives to communicate about the content of their ballot and the voting experience, including photographing himself with his ‘I voted sticker.’ ”

The last minute change in state law will create “disruption and delays — in essence the chaos — that will inevitably result from last-minute changes to familiar procedures.” Schuette wrote in the appeal.

State Rep. Sam Singh, a Democrat from East Lansing, Mich., who has sponsored legislation to allow for ballot selfies, said the ruling is appropriate and a good tool to increase voter turnout.

"I have long felt that this ban on ballot selfies is a violation of First Amendment rights," he said. "Social media is a powerful tool and individuals who wish to proudly display their ballots, and hopefully encourage friends to vote as well, should be able to do so."

Meanwhile, a Colorado state senator filed a lawsuit against the state Monday seeking to strike down a Colorado law that bans ballot selfies.

In the lawsuit, Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, argued that Colorado's ballot selfie ban "chilled" him and other voters "from being permitted to engage in the simple act of posting a photo of a ballot as a political expression."

Hill's lawsuit includes Scott Romano of Littleton, Colo., who also wanted to take a photograph of his ballot.

Colorado's law, makes it a misdemeanor for a voter to show his or her ballot "in such a way as to reveal its contents."

The lawsuit, which names the secretary of state and the attorney general as defendants, notes that similar bans on photos of ballots have been struck down in other states, including New Hampshire and Indiana.

An Associated Press review found 18 states have laws against sharing ballot photos. Six other states bar photography in polling places but permit photos of mail-in ballots. In addition to the bans that were struck down, rules have been changed in California and Rhode Island.

Contributing: Brandon Rittiman, KUSA-TV, Denver; The Associated Press. Follow Kathleen Gray on Twitter: @michpoligal

Copyright 2016 Detroit Free Press


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