Selfie Slow-Down

I have already blogged about one American judicial decision on the constitutionality of a “ballot selfie” ban, which has since been upheld on appeal by the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. And I have also written about the history of the secret ballot, which in my view explains why measures to protect ballot secrecy ― including bans on something that might at first glance appear quite innocuous, like a selfie showing for whom a person has voted ― are actually more important than they seem. Another American decision issued last week, this one by the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, provides some additional food for thought on this issue.

Much of the discussion in Judge Sutton’s majority opinion in Crookston v Johnson is procedural. The case came up as an application for a preliminary injunction preventing the enforcement of Michigan’s prohibition on “exposing marked ballots to others”, (1) and Judge Sutton concludes that it is simply too late to grant one now in anticipation of the elections to be held on November 8. The people who will be running the election have already been trained and have received specific guidance on photography at the polling stations. Changing the rules at this point would create unnecessary confusion. So Judge Sutton does not rule on the merits of the case, which will be assessed later, assuming the applicant still cares. (This situation is reminiscent of the Canadian cases about election debates, which are invariably brought on an emergency basis when the debates are set up, and invariably abandoned before a full merits hearing once the election has taken place.)

But Judge Sutton does make some comments that bear on the merits of the dispute, and, although preliminary, these comments strike me as quite sensible and interesting. One observation is that

many Michigan voting stalls … are simply tall desks, placed next to each other, with three short dividers shielding the writing surface from view. In this setting, posing for a ballot selfie could compromise the secrecy of another’s ballot, distract other voters, and force a poll worker to intervene. (4)

My memory of Canadian voting stalls is a bit hazy ― I skipped the last election because I couldn’t tell which of the parties was worst ― but something like that might be true of them too. And indeed, even if it is not in any given case, it is worth thinking about whether our voting arrangements must actually be planned so as to cater to the “needs” of people wishing to snap a selfie.

Another practical point is that allowing ballot selfies could create a “risk of delay” at the polling stations, “as ballot-selfie takers try to capture the marked ballot and face in one frame—all while trying to catch the perfect smile”. (5) In a brief concurrence focusing entirely on the issue of delay, Judge Guy makes the additional point that “with digital photography, if you don’t like the way you look in the first one, you take another and so on ad infinitum.” (7) He wonders, too, whether “the allowance of taking a selfie also include use of the ubiquitous selfie stick”. (7)

And then, there are the issues that I have already discussed here ― whether the absence of evidence of ballot selfies’ harm shows that there is no reason for banning them or, on the contrary, demonstrates the effectiveness of the bans as a prophylactic measure. Judge Sutton clearly thinks that the latter is the case. Moreover, “[t]he links between [voter corruption and intimidation] and the prohibition on ballot exposure are not some historical accident; they are ‘common sense'”. (5, quoting US Supreme Court precedent.) Chief Judge Cole, dissenting, takes the contrary view, as have other American courts that have addressed selfie bans.

For own part, without expressing an opinion as to which of these views is correct as a matter of U.S. law, I have more sympathy for Judge Sutton’s. While I have been dwelling on the importance of evidence in constitutional adjudication for some time now, and critical of restricting rights on the basis of assumptions no later than yesterday, the evidence is actually there, albeit that it is mostly historical. Moreover, a court should be able to pronounce on the issue of delay without waiting for an “experiment” to take place. Common sense can be an unreliable guide to adjudication, but ― absent evidence to the contrary ― courts should be able to rely on it sometimes.

Prohibitions of ballot selfies might seem counter-intuitive or even quaint. In the United States, they run counter to the very strong tradition of virtually untrammelled freedom of expression. While I sometimes wish that Canadians took more inspiration from that tradition than they do (for example when it comes to the criminalization of “hate speech”), this is one instance where a more even-handed weighing of competing interests might be in order. Judges Sutton and Guy provide a useful reminder of what some of these interests are.

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