1 1 0
In a fight over voter intimidation and freedom of expression, see where your state falls.
While tapping through Instagram Stories, you are likely to see at least a few of your friends posing with their voted ballots. Before you follow their lead, check to see whether your state still bans the practice — or you could end up like Justin Timberlake, who in 2016 deleted a photo of himself voting after realizing it was against the law in Tennessee.
In many states, it’s perfectly legal to share a so-called “ballot selfie,” so have at it. But taking a photo of your ballot and posting it online is not allowed in at least 14 states, and in others, you’ll be in something of a gray zone.
It took the US over a century to adopt secret ballots on a widespread basis; now the omnipresence of cellphone cameras is forcing states to reevaluate just how secret they need to be. More and more states have allowed the practice, listening to arguments that ballot selfies are protected by free speech principles and are “good for democracy.” But not everyone’s in agreement, as Zachary Crockett explained for Vox in 2016:
Those in opposition claim that ballot selfies could “compromise elections” by encouraging vote buying. That is, a person who is being paid to vote a certain way can easily, and privately, prove she did so by taking a photo of her ballot.
Still, the rules have changed in quite a few places over the past decade — including in at least five states since 2016. So we checked where it’s okay for you to post away and where you might want to share a photo of your “I voted” sticker instead. Regardless of where you live, however, you should be careful that your photo includes only your ballot, not other voters or their ballots.
The history of the secret ballot
Thanks to secret ballots, no one can confirm how you vote this November, but it wasn’t always that way. Voting used to be a public affair. The University of Virginia website recounts how eligible American voters — “all men in those days” — would do so either by viva voce (calling out their preferred candidates) or by depositing “a highly visible ticket in a box or transparent jar or hand[ing] it in to an election clerk.” In short, voting used to be a “mass spectacle,” a raucous affair that defined “the political worlds of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Lincoln.”
As Jill Lepore wrote for the New Yorker in 2008, this system became unwieldy as the population grew and the US began dealing with “massive fraud and intimidation.” As reformers began moving toward a secret-ballot system, Lepore wrote, detractors like John Stuart Mill warned of its consequences:
Voting, Mill insisted, is not a right but a trust: if it were a right, who could blame a voter for selling it? Every man’s vote must be public for the same reason that votes on the floor of the legislature are public. If a congressman or a Member of Parliament could conceal his vote, would we not expect him to vote badly, in his own interest and not in ours? A secret vote is, by definition, a selfish vote. Only if a man votes “under the eye and criticism of the public” will he put public interest above his own.
Despite the objections of Mill and others who cautioned against allowing people to vote privately, in the 1890s the US adopted the idea that the government should provide you a ballot and that voting should, in fact, happen behind closed doors.
Importantly, some states also adopted this reform not to address concerns about voter intimidation but to restrict access for Black and low-income voters. “Anybody who couldn’t read a very complicated ballot, on their own, in secret, in a kind of a sanctified space was essentially disenfranchised. And that was the idea,” Flinders University professor Don DeBats told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this month.
Camera phones and the reimagining of the secret ballot
As social media and the ubiquity of cellphone cameras made sharing marked ballots easy, election officials have been forced to reckon with the age-old problem their predecessors believed they had solved: Should we restrict freedom of expression at the ballot box?
Proponents of ballot selfies think they could encourage others to vote. Erich Ebel, a spokesperson for Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman at the time, told CNN in 2018 that ballot selfies “could possibly even encourage more people to get their own ballots submitted before the deadline.”
Some states that ban ballot selfies have suggested alternatives they say could achieve a similar effect, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes on its website. For example, Georgia’s “Post the Peach” campaign “encourage[d] people to take a photo wearing the ‘I’m a Georgia Voter’ sticker with a peach in the background,” and the Tennessee secretary of state’s office “encouraged voters to print off a ‘I Voted – Have You?’ sign and post photos on social meeting using #GoVoteTN.”
States that allow ballot selfies, as well as other proponents of the practice, cite free speech concerns as a rationale for opposing bans. But detractors are more concerned with voter intimidation and vote buying.
Idaho Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said he worries that in the age of “cancel culture,” if “a secret ballot were breached, if people knew how other people were voting,” there could be consequences.
And Maura Browning, a spokesperson for Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, noted that “the secrecy of your ballot ensures that there cannot be voter intimidation.”
Take the story of a Florida manufacturing company. ABC-13, an Orlando ABC affiliate, reported that the president of the Daniels Manufacturing Corporation (DMC) included a letter in his employees’ recent paystubs that told them layoffs could be imminent if “Biden and the Democrats win.” ABC 13 further reported that “some employees … feel they were threatened with being laid off if they did not support President Donald Trump.”
It’s not hard to see a world where a DMC employee who posted a photo showing their vote for former Vice President Joe Biden instead of for Trump could fear repercussions at work.
Another concern is vote buying. As former US Attorney Kerry Harvey explained to the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2016, ballot selfies “solve the ‘verification’ problem for vote buyers.”
“Selfies in the voting booth will make it easier to successfully buy votes and harder to detect,” Harvey told the Courier-Journal in an email. Simply put, people are much more likely to try to buy your vote if they can get proof of purchase (via a ballot selfie) than if they’re just relying on your word that you fulfilled your end of the bargain.
However, some officials feel this is unlikely to be an issue. Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff and communications director for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, told me the office “[hasn’t] had any claims or complaints about vote buying in the last four years.”
And as Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, told New Hampshire Public Radio after the state overturned its ballot selfie prohibition, focusing on the voter might not be the best solution, even if you are concerned about vote buying or intimidation:
If the rationale for such a speech restriction is to try to prevent vote bribery or voter coercion, then the state should investigate and try to prosecute vote bribery and voter coercion … rather than enact a law that sweeps within its scope protected speech, innocent speech, political speech that has nothing to do with vote bribery and voter coercion.
The country is still making up its mind. Here’s where your state falls in the debate.
Where ballot selfies are legal
- Alabama: The legislature passed a bill in May 2019 clarifying voters can take a photograph of their own ballots. “Alabama voters, who have a long history of proudly attending the polls on Election Day, now have the opportunity to share their pride on social media or in other electronic formats through taking a ballot selfie!” said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill in a July press release.
- Arkansas: According to a 2018 CNN report, “there’s no law against taking selfies, says the secretary of state’s office, as long as you’re not being disruptive in the polling place or taking pictures of other people’s ballots.”
- California: As of January 1, 2017, Californians are no longer prohibited from taking a ballot selfie.
- Colorado: Though you don’t hear about it much on the campaign trail, former governor and current Senate candidate John Hickenlooper signed a “ballot selfie bill” into law on March 17, 2017.
- Connecticut: The secretary of state’s office told Vox that “there are no restrictions” and “if it doesn’t create a disturbance in the polling place then it’s not something we’re worried about.”
- District of Columbia: Washingtonians may not have congressional representation, but at least they can snap a selfie at the polls. DC Board of Elections spokesperson Nick Jacobs told Vox that ballot selfies are allowed but wanted to put “a huge emphasis” on respecting “every other voter’s privacy and their anonymity in casting their ballot.”
- Hawaii: As of January 2015, Hawaiians have been permitted to take ballot selfies.
- Iowa: I spoke with Molly Widen, legal counsel to Iowa’s secretary of state, who told me ballot selfies are legal but, as in other states, you can’t take photos of other people or other people’s ballots.
- Kansas: In November 2018, a spokesperson from the Kansas secretary of state’s office told CNN, ”It does not appear to be a crime under current law, but it’s also not encouraged.”
- Kentucky: In 2016, the Courier-Journal reported that Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Taylor Payne affirmed the legality of ballot selfies, while cautioning “that it is illegal to take pictures of anyone else, or their ballot, at the polls.”
- Louisiana: Tom Schedler, Louisiana’s secretary of state at the time, told the Advocate in October 2016 that “voters can choose to snap a selfie in the voting booth” though he isn’t “thrilled” by the idea.
- Michigan: The secretary of state’s website clarifies that “voters will be allowed to take a photograph of their own ballot but only while in the voting booth.”
- Montana: On August 8, 2018, the Associated Press reported that “Montana voters can take ‘ballot selfies’ at polling places on Election Day as long as they aren’t being disruptive or are coerced into doing so, the state’s campaign and elections regulator has ruled.”
- Nebraska: The National Conference of State Legislatures says that in 2016, the state allowed “ballot selfies as a provision of LB 874 (2016) that specified a voter may voluntarily photograph his or her ballot after it is marked and reveal the photograph to another person.”
- New Hampshire: Despite the state’s best efforts, ballot selfies are legal in New Hampshire. In April 2017, the Supreme Court declined to review the First Circuit Court’s decision to strike down New Hampshire’s ban on photographing marked ballots.
- New Mexico: In 2018, a spokesperson for the secretary of state told CNN that “voters can take pictures of themselves and their ballots at polling places … just as long as they don’t disturb normal operations or violate the privacy of others.”
- North Dakota: The secretary of state’s office told Fox in October that the state “does not have any laws specific to ballot selfies. If it is not disrupting the polling place it is allowed.”
- Oklahoma: As of May 28, 2019, ballot selfies are legal in Oklahoma, but it remains against the rules to post from “within the election enclosure.”
- Oregon: The Portland ABC affiliate reported in November 2018 that there are no restrictions on photographing your ballot.
- Rhode Island: The Providence Journal reported in 2016 that the state Board of Elections allows voters “to take photos of themselves in polling places if they wish, so long as they don’t photograph other people.”
- Utah: A 2015 bill allowed voters to “take, share, or publish a photograph of the individual’s ballot.”
- Vermont: In 2016, Secretary of State Jim Condos told Vermont Public Radio that “he believes it is legal for a voter to take a photograph with their ballot because Vermont election law does not expressly prohibit this practice.”
- Virginia: Snap away, Virginians; per a 2016 legal opinion from the state attorney general, ballot selfies are legal.
- Washington: The secretary of state’s website clearly states that they do not “directly prohibit ballot selfies. However, it is illegal to view another’s ballot for a purpose prohibited by law, such as vote buying.”
- Wyoming: In 2018, Will Dinneen from the secretary of state’s office told CNN that “in Wyoming there are no laws against ballot selfies” but “the law does allow judges of elections to ‘preserve order at the polls by any necessary and suitable means,’” so elaborate TikToks likely would not be your safest course of action.
Where ballot selfies are illegal
- Florida: The Seminole County supervisor of elections told Fox 35 in October that “while you cannot take selfies or photos of your ballots, you can still use your phone in the voting booth to finalize any last-minute decisions.”
- Georgia: Both CNN and the New York Times reported in 2018 that selfies are illegal in Georgia.
- Illinois: The Illinois Policy Institute reported in September that “snapping a photo of your filled-in ballot and posting it on Facebook or Instagram is technically a Class 4 felony in Illinois, which comes with a prison sentence of one to three years and a maximum fine of $25,000.”
- Massachusetts: Anyone who “allows the marking of his ballot to be seen by any person for any purpose not authorized by law” is punishable “by imprisonment for not more than six months or by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”
- Missouri: The secretary of state’s office pointed me to Chapter 115.637.14, which makes allowing your ballot “to be seen by any person with the intent of letting it be known how he or she is about to vote or has voted” a class four election offense.
- Nevada: Phones and pictures are both explicitly banned. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported in 2016 that the ban includes mail-in ballots.
- New York: “The State of New York has a compelling interest in preventing vote buying and voter coercion,” US District Judge P. Kevin Castel found in a September 2017 decision upholding the state’s ban on ballot selfies.
- North Carolina: In a February 25 press release, the state Board of Elections reminded voters “that North Carolina law prohibits taking photographs of or videotaping voted ballots.”
- Ohio: The Fox affiliate in Cleveland reported in November 2019 that “ballot selfies are a violation of Ohio election law,” according to Mike West, the manager of community outreach at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
- South Carolina: The state’s election commission clearly states, “State law prohibits anyone from showing their ballot to another person (S.C. Code of Laws Section 7-25-100). The use of cameras is not allowed inside the voting booth.”
- South Dakota: In advance of the June 2018 primaries, Secretary of State Shantel Krebs reminded voters that “posting on social media a photo of a marked ballot showing how someone voted is illegal.”
- Tennessee: After Justin Timberlake accidentally broke the law by taking a ballot selfie, the Tennessee Senate passed a bill allowing ballot selfies. It doesn’t look like that bill went anywhere, as Julia Bruck from the secretary of state’s office told me that “Under Tennessee law, voters cannot use their mobile electronic or communication device for phone calls, recording or taking photographs or videos while inside a polling location.”
- Texas: Director of Elections Keith Ingram told CNN in 2018: “Persons are not allowed to use wireless communications devices within 100 feet of the voting stations. Additionally, persons are not allowed to use mechanical or electronic devices to record sound or images within 100 feet of the voting stations.” However, as the Texas Tribune reports in 2016, “Texans who vote by mail are in luck. State law does not prohibit #AbsenteeBallotSelfies, though Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, cautions that ‘voters should be careful not to share any information they don’t want public.’”
- West Virginia: Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff and communications director to Secretary of State Mac Warner, told Vox that the state does not “permit people taking pictures inside of polling locations … whether it be the ballot or anything.”
Where it’s complicated
- Alaska: Alaska law prohibits voters from exhibiting their ballots “to an election official or any other person so as to enable any person to ascertain how the voter marked the ballot.” However, different rules apply to Anchorage residents. The Anchorage Assembly passed Title 28 in February allowing you to “post your ballot, [but] the code does still prohibit showing that picture to anyone while within 200 feet of a polling location.”
- Arizona: In Arizona, you can’t take photos within a 75-foot perimeter of a polling place, but this does leave open taking photos of your absentee ballot.
- Delaware: The New York Times reported in 2018 that ballot selfies are not permitted in Delaware, “where Elaine Manlove, the state’s election commissioner, said signs would be posted banning cellphone use even though there is no law addressing it.” CNN confirmed in 2018 reporting that there are no laws prohibiting the practice, but that officials discouraged cellphone use at the polls.
- Idaho: I spoke with Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck, who told me that while he doesn’t believe there is any statute on the books, the state’s constitution requires a secret ballot.
- Indiana: In October 2015, US District Judge Sarah Evans Barker “issued a preliminary injunction” after Indiana tried to make posting a ballot selfie a felony, reports the Indianapolis Star. The secretary of state’s office didn’t return a request for comment, so it’s unclear if this injunction is still in place, though CNN reported in 2018 that it was.
- Maine: The Associated Press reported in 2016 that “the secretary of state discourages ballot selfies because there’s a ban on making unauthorized ballot copies, but there’s no law against voters posting photos of their marked ballots.”
- Maryland: The state Board of Elections says “you cannot use your cell phone, pager, camera, and computer equipment in an early voting center or at a polling place.” I couldn’t find any laws against photographing your absentee ballot, but I wasn’t able to confirm that with the Maryland Board of Elections.
- Minnesota: The secretary of state’s website writes “there is no law that strictly prohibits taking photos or videos in the polling place to record your own voting experience.” But it then goes on to say “Minnesota Statutes 204C.17 and Minnesota Statutes 204C.18 prohibit voters from showing their marked ballot to others. Taking photographs or video of your own marked ballot could violate this prohibition.”
- Mississippi: Leah Smith from the secretary of state’s office told CNN in 2018 that while “there’s no law against taking photos at the polling place … the state prohibits a voter from showing his or her marked ballot to another person.”
- New Jersey: While there’s no prohibiting law on the books, the secretary of state’s office “views voting booth selfies as a violation of the existing law against disrupting a polling place and identifying a voter’s cast ballot.”
- Pennsylvania: The secretary of state’s website says that each county can “set their own policy regarding electronic devices in the polling place” and that you’ll see posted signage if your county prohibits it. Additionally, the website recommends you “wait until after you leave the polling place” to post the photos online.
- Wisconsin: CNN reports in 2018 that Michael Haas of the state election commission said “yes, you may take a selfie, but workers may ask you to stop if you are creating a distraction. They also really suggest you don’t post a selfie with your marked ballot. You won’t get in trouble, but it will raise questions as to whether someone paid you to do so.”
The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Author: Jerusalem Demsas