July 13, 2006
USING CELL PHONES IN POLLING PLACES
By: Kristin Sullivan, Associate Analyst
You asked whether neighboring states limit or ban cell phone use in and around polling places and if they do, for a description of those laws. You expressed concern that individuals inside Connecticut's polling places used cell phones to campaign.
We contacted election officials in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island to find out whether these states have laws or regulations limiting or banning cell phone use in and around polling places. New York and Rhode Island do not. Massachusetts prohibits the use of “electronic devices” for recording or broadcasting the names of voters who have not yet voted. According to the Elections Division of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this prohibition applies to cell phones.
New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut simultaneously (1) allow authorized poll workers to communicate certain information via telephone to campaign or party officials outside a polling place and (2) ban so-called “electioneering,” or political advertising and other actions meant to influence voters, within a restricted area surrounding a polling place. While all three prohibit specific activities under this ban, none has a law targeting cell phone use by election officials, poll workers, or any other individual as a mechanism for engaging in electioneering. (Massachusetts also prohibits electioneering inside a restricted area.)
USING TELEPHONES INSIDE THE POLLING PLACE TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION ABOUT WHO VOTED
Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all allow authorized individuals to convey information about who has voted and who has not to party or campaign representatives outside the polling place. Massachusetts prohibits telephones as a communication device but the rest do not. In fact, our conversations with election officials revealed that in New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut certain poll workers may indeed use cell phones to carry out their duties even though no law specifically authorizes them to do so.
Massachusetts allows each candidate to have three observers, or “poll watchers,” situated in a polling place. The poll watchers are responsible for marking a personal voter registry list to keep track of who has cast a ballot. They may communicate that information in person to campaign or party representatives by leaving the polling place and restricted area.
Even though the law does not explicitly ban any individual from using a cell phone, it does prohibit the “use of electronic means such as tape recording equipment or radio broadcasting equipment for the recording or broadcasting of the names of voters not yet checked as having voted,” (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. 54 § 76). According to the Elections Division, this law was passed long before cell phones become prevalent and does apply to them.
New York allows each party with a candidate on the ballot to appoint “poll watchers” (N.Y. Elec. Law § 8-500). According to the Board of Elections, as election inspectors announce the names of electors who vote, the poll watchers check them off a voter registry list and relay that information to campaign or party officials outside the polling place. They may do this by telephone, cell or landline, or in person.
In Rhode Island, partisan poll workers called “checkers” keep lists of electors who have voted during an election. “Runners” and “watchers” are permitted to leave and reenter the restricted area surrounding the polling place and relay the voter information, by telephone or in person, contained on the lists (R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-19-22).
While the law does not expressly allow poll workers to use cell phones to carry out their duties, a representative of the Board of Elections indicated that they commonly do. In fact, during the 2004 election, Verizon Wireless, a cellular service provider, partnered with the Town of Warwick to provide each of its precincts with a cell phone.
Connecticut's election law allows “unofficial checkers” and “runners” to communicate information to candidates or political parties about who has voted and who has not. Both may do so in person; unofficial checkers may also use a telephone. According to the Election's Division in the Office of the Secretary of the State, no law or regulation prevents unofficial checkers from using cell phones to carry out their duties.
Unofficial checkers may be present at a primary, election, or referendum. The Moderator's Handbook the Office of the Secretary of the State supplies directs them to sit near the official checkers' tables or at the end of the tables so that they can hear the electors as they announce their name and address. The unofficial checkers have their own copy of the official voter registry checklist and mark off the names of electors as they vote. They report that information to their respective headquarters by (1) entering and leaving the polling place at any time throughout the day or (2) using a telephone provided by the party that appointed them (CGS § 9-235).
Runners may be present at an election or primary for the sole purpose of entering and leaving the polling place, and the restricted area surrounding it, to take information identifying electors who have voted outside. Each runner is subject to the control of the moderator (CGS § 9-235b).
Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, like Connecticut, prohibit electioneering activities inside a polling place and a marked radius of its entrances. In Massachusetts that distance is 150 feet, in New York it is 100 feet, and in Rhode Island, 50 feet (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. 54 § 65, N.Y. Elec. Law § 8-104, and R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-19-49). In Connecticut the distance is 75 feet (CGS § 9-236).
In all four states, the prohibition on electioneering activities inside the polling place and its restricted area applies generally to the distribution or display of any poster, paper, circular, or picture designed to aid or injure a candidate or a political party. It also applies to the solicitation of support for or opposition to a candidate or a ballot question, if applicable.