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VOL. 41 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 14, 2017

Tennessee Senate OKs cellphones, selfies while voting

By Sam Stockard

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Legislation stemming from the infamous voting-booth selfie by pop star Justin Timberlake sailed through the Senate Thursday.

Unknowingly, Timberlake might have violated state law when he took a selfie in a Germantown voting booth in 2016 where, as a periodic resident, he is registered to vote, according to reports.

But the legislation sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, and Rep. Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat, could alleviate such polling place violations unless people are disrupting the voting process or using cell-phone photos or video to violate state law.

“Sometimes citizens are waiting in long lines in hallways before they even reach the room with the voting machines,” Kelsey said via statement. “We need to allow folks to call home about the grocery list while they are waiting.”

The bill passed the Senate Thursday morning in a 30-0 voice vote. The House version is slated to be heard Tuesday by the House Local Government Committee.

The bill allows exceptions in which election workers can stop people from using cell phones, mainly relating to harassment, disruptions and a recording of a marked ballot. Photos of marked ballots would be prohibited, for instance, to keep elected officials from requiring employees of taking photos of their vote to prove they backed them at the ballot booth, according to Kelsey’s office.

“This (bill) helps us to continue to conduct elections with integrity and reliability, as the ban on cell phone use is a narrowly tailored restriction to achieve that interest,” Kelsey said. “At the same time, it employs common sense so that we don’t infringe on our citizens’ First Amendment rights.”

Election workers would be able to stop cell phone use for several reasons:

  • Phone conversations within 10 feet of a voting machines, ballot box or voting booth.
  • Phone conversations while the person is standing in front of an election official trying to fulfill documentation duties for voters.
  • Discussion of candidates or issues on the ballot that can be heard by other people at a precinct.
  • Creating sounds, lights or images that delay or disrupt people who are voting.
  • Failing to turn down ring tones.
  • Taking photos or shooting video of people at the polls without permission.
  • Intimidating people at the polls in violation of state law.
  • Photographing or recording a marked ballot in an effort to commit voter intimidation, voter fraud or violate state law.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, is sponsoring separate legislation to allow selfies such as the one taken by Timberlake.

The singer/actor took the photo last year and posted a message stating, “Hey! You! Yeah, YOU! I just flew from LA to Memphis to #rockthevote !!! No excuses, my good people! There could be early voting in your town too. If not, November 8th! Choose to have a voice! If you don’t, then we can’t HEAR YOU! Get out and VOTE! #exerciseyourrighttovote”

Under the law that took effect in January 2016, Tennesseans are allowed to use cell phones inside polling places to help them make election decisions. But they are prohibited “from using the device for telephone conversations, recording, or taking photographs or videos while inside the polling place.” Violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine.

Kelsey sponsored that measure, which passed on a Senate consent calendar. It saw Democratic opposition on the House floor before passing on a party-line vote there in 2015.

After primary voting last year, the Shelby County DA’s Office initially said it was looking into Timberlake’s situation to determine whether charges should be filed but later said it wasn’t pursuing the matter, according to reports.

Hardaway, after announcing last year he would try to repeal the law, requested an attorney general’s opinion on the matter. But AG Herbert Slatery opined the law doesn’t violate state or federal constitutions and stated, “The interior of a polling place is a nonpublic forum” and the government can regulate speech there as long as the rule is “reasonable.”

“Because a polling place is not a public forum, any regulation on speech within that forum will be constitutional as long as it reasonably relates to a legitimate government interest,” the opinion states.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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