Judge upholds California ban on voters taking selfies of ballot

Law is upheld despite ACLU claiming state's ban on taking selfies at the ballot box violates freedom of speech.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
3 min read

The law is the law, no selfies allowed at the polls in California.

That's what a US district judge ruled Wednesday, rejecting the American Civil Liberties Union's request for an injunction lifting the state's ban on voters taking selfies of their ballot. The ACLU said the more than century-old law banning cameras at the polls violate voters' freedom of speech.


Nope, California voters still won't be able to take these kinds of selfies at ballots such as this guy in Wisconsin two years ago.

Darren Hauck, Getty Images

But Judge William Alsup took less than two hours to reach his decision, chastising the ACLU for filing a lawsuit Monday in federal court in San Francisco claiming voters' First Amendment rights are being denied from expressing their political positions -- with Election Day less than a week away.

Alsup claimed the ACLU was trying to run a "2-minute drill." The judge said he couldn't imagine changing a longstanding law. A law, he said, that could lead to retraining hundreds of workers at more than 14,000 poling places across California's 58 counties. He also couldn't imagine how it would affect thousands of voters facing critical decisions by not being able to use a "selfie stick" with their phone to show others who they voted for.

"It's not so simple. Will a voter be allowed to go into a voting booth and use one of those sticks so that the voter makes sure their face is in it? And, then they're going to check it to make sure it picks up everything," said Alsup to chuckles in the courtroom. "Then let's say they don't get everything, can they try again? How many times can they keep trying? What if they don't like the smile on their face? They have to get the face, the smile, the ballot all just right.

"These nuanced decisions should not be made at the last second."

The California selfie suit came a week after pop star Justin Timberlake made headlines violating Tennessee law with his own ballot selfie as the nation prepares to go to the polls in an increasingly tight race between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Michael Risher, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, told Alsup the civil rights group had been meeting with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla's office to reach some sort of compromise. The group, however, still felt prompted to file suit after Padilla sent out a memo last month reminding election officials no cameras are allowed in polling places.

This, despite state legislators recently passing a law allowing photos of ballots not going into effect until next year.

But Alsup said the legislature had the right to make an exception to the current ban last month, but obviously chose not to. He also said the ACLU had plenty of time to raise questions about the ban at that time and months before.

"If I'd known what I know now, I would've filed (a suit)," Risher told the judge.

California Deputy Attorney General Emmannuelle Soichet [CQ] told the judge that while Padilla supports the new law, he doesn't think it should take effect this election season.

Currently, 18 states ban the sharing photos of voter ballots, while 6 other states prohibit taking photos in polling places but allow for photos of mail-in ballots. Judges in Indiana and New Hampshire have ruled against bans on selfies in those states, and a lawsuit challenging New York's ban is pending.

After Alsup's ruling, Risher said he didn't know whether the ACLU will appeal the decision with six days before the election.

"It's a loss for (voters') First Amendment rights, it's an incredible contentious election, one that people have a lot of opinions about and they want to show who they voted for," he said. "We think they have the right to do that."