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Smartphones not smart at the polls

Posted November 2, 2012 4:22 p.m. EDT
Updated February 20, 2020 12:20 p.m. EST

February 2020 update: The story below is from 2012, and the rules have changed. Cellphones ARE allowed in North Carolina voting booths now, and you can consult them while you vote. But they should not be used to communicate with anyone in the voting area, or to take pictures, according to the State Board of Elections.

If you’re headed for the polls, don’t count on using your cellphone to help you remember which candidates to vote for.

Wake County voter Brad Bell found that out the hard way.

Before he went to the polls this week, Bell says, he spent quite a bit of time researching the candidates for council of state and judicial races.

“This being the 21st century and me having a notoriously short memory, I wrote my choices down on my smartphone,” Bell told WRAL via email.

When he got into the voting booth, he took out his iPhone to consult his list. But before he even opened his notes, he says, a poll worker was at his side, insisting he would have to put the phone away before he would be allowed to complete his ballot.

“After attempting to recall from memory my choices for Council of State and judge positions to no success, I felt like I was being denied my right to vote because I was not allowed to use my smart phone,” said Bell.

Angry and frustrated, Bell says he told election officials he wanted to withdraw his ballot until he could memorize the candidates he wanted to support.

“That's when the election supervisor for the site stepped in, took my ballot, allowed me to go into a back room at the polling site with a piece of paper and pen to write my choices down, and allowed me to return to complete my ballot.” (Notes on paper or voter guides are allowed.)

“Ultimately, I got to exercise my right to vote, albeit with some hassle,” Bell said.

But when he posted his story on Facebook, he found out he wasn’t the only one who’d run into that problem.

“One of my friends replied, ‘I did the same thing and when they would not let me use my phone, I had no idea who to vote for judge wise’,” Bell said.

Don't phone a friend

The ban on cell phones at polling sites is a matter of state law, according to Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. And if it's a phone with a camera, it's illegal on two fronts.

First, NC Statute 163-165.1 bans voters from receiving assistance at the ballot box except from a close family member or a few other exceptions that require prior arrangement with precinct officials.

Wright says a voter on the phone could be talking or texting with someone working for a campaign. “There's a presumption that operation of a cell phone in a voting booth is unlawful assistance.”

Don't post that photo

Second, under NC Statute 163-166.3, it's illegal to take photos of voters or completed ballots, "except with the permission of both the voter and the chief judge of the precinct.”

Banning people from photographing other people's ballots is just common sense, Wright says. "It's a violation of the secret ballot."

But it's even illegal to take a photo of your OWN ballot – a fact apparently unknown to the many North Carolinians who post photos of their completed ballots on Facebook every election.

It's my ballot

If it's your ballot, why can't you take a photo of it? Wright says it's to partly protect the vote - and partly to protect you.

In another state several years ago, a criminal vote-buying scheme used such photos. Vote-sellers were given cell phones and told to take a picture of their completed ballots to prove they had earned their payment.

“We don’t have a lot of trouble with vote buying in NC," Wright said. "But we don’t want to encourage it, either.”

He says the ban also protects voters from outside pressure. Several years ago in Italy, Wright says, members of the Mafia were told to bring back photos of their ballots to prove they voted for the candidates supported by their crime syndicate.

Wright says without the photo ban, an unscrupulous employer could exert the same type of pressure here in North Carolina.

"You're free to tell the world who you voted for," Wright said. "You can tell the truth, or you can lie about it. You just can't take a picture of it."