Why NH’s ban on ballot selfies threatens free expression

Illustration by Brendan Lynch for WGBHNews.org.

Illustration by Brendan Lynch for WGBHNews.org.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The more absurd the law, the more difficult it can be to drive a wooden stake through its heart—all the more so when that law clashes with our First Amendment right to free expression.

And so it is with a New Hampshire statute that prohibits so-called ballot selfies, a self-indulgent genre that arose from our self-indulgent age. The idea is to vote, take a picture of yourself with your marked ballot, and then post it to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or any other social network of your choosing. Do it in the Granite State and you could be fined $1,000.

Last summer I bestowed a WGBH News Muzzle Award upon State Representative Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, for foisting this new form of digital harassment upon the public. I can’t stay I took it all that seriously. Mainly I thought it would make for a fun item to wedge in between more serious examples of censorship. And I certainly wasn’t surprised when, a month later, the law wasstruck down by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds.

But the selfie ban won’t die. New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner is now appealing it, and the matter is before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals—which means that if he wins, a similar ban in Massachusetts would continue to stand as well. So it’s time to take a closer look at why a law against taking pictures of ourselves and our ballots is a violation of our constitutional rights.

The New England First Amendment Coalition has filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief laying out the case against the selfie ban. Filed in conjunction with the Keene Sentinel and prepared by the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School, it is a humdinger. Over the course of 34 pages, the brief ranges from a John Oliver comedy routine to show that concerns about voter fraud (the alleged reason for the ban) are vastly overblown to the social impact of images depicting civil-rights demonstrators being attacked in Selma, Ala.

The heart of the brief, though, is a forceful argument that ballot selfies are a form of political speech and therefore deserve the highest level of constitutional protection. “Political speech is a ‘core’ concern of the First Amendment,” the amici write, “and protection of speech is never stronger than when the speaker is addressing political or governmental issues.”

So what could go wrong? In fact, it is not difficult to imagine how ballot selfies might be abused. If someone wants to buy your vote, it stands to reason that he’s going to want proof of purchase. “We have prosecutions for vote buying every year, and many of them involve absentee ballots, where it is possible to see how someone voted and collect and mail their ballot,” writes University of California Irvine law professor Richard L. Hasen in defending the ban.

Yet there is to date no evidence that ballot selfies have been used to enable such schemes—and, according to opponents of the ban, theoretical threats simply can’t be used to defend a law that has the effect of squelching political expression. In a paper published by the Science and Technology Law Review at Southern Methodist University, Nashville lawyer Daniel A. Horwitz says that Hasen is wrong—that vote buying is “statistically non-existent.” Moreover, Horwitz writes, the law would be ineffective in any case because the ballot could be altered after the photo is taken, “rendering the entire premise behind such laws baseless.”

Yes, ballot selfies can be annoying. So can watching the person at the next table take an Instagram of her shrimp scampi. That doesn’t mean either activity should be illegal.

In defending the selfie ban, New Hampshire’s Gardner last year told NPR that breaching the privacy of the ballot booth was a serious threat to democracy. “I have a copy of the last ballot that was used when Saddam Hussein was elected, and that ballot identified who the person was,” he was quoted as saying. “Hitler did the same thing in Austria.”

That’s exactly the sort of wild overstatement that ought to make us suspicious. In fact, the ban prevents us from exercising our free-speech rights today in the name of preventing theoretical evils that can be dealt with when—and if—they arise.