A bill passed this year by the General Assembly prohibiting people from using cellphones to record images at voting sites in Tennessee has been signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Starting in 2016, state law will permit using “a mobile electronic or communication device” for “informational purposes to assist the voter in making election decisions.” But it will forbid Tennesseans “from using the device for telephone conversations, recording, or taking photographs or videos while inside the polling place.”
The GOP-sponsored initiative passed 75-23 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
Rep. Mary Littleton of Dickson and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown pitched their bill primarily as a new privilege for citizens. It grants people statutory permission to use their smartphones for accessing ballot information, like that provided by the secretary of state’s election app unveiled last year.
“There are some county election commissions that prohibit cellphones and cellphone usage inside the polling places, and I think probably for good reason,” Kelsey told members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee during a hearing on the bill back in March. “It can be disruptive if you are talking on the phone. Or, potentially, if you took pictures of things that were going on there you could cause a problem with revealing confidential information in there.”
The language of the proposition drew no opposition in the Senate, but debate took a quarrelsome turn on the House floor when Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville proposed an amendment granting exemption from the image-capturing ban for people engaged in a “good faith effort to record unlawful activity,” such as “voter fraud or intimidation.”
Stewart worried the measure as-written will thwart a citizen’s ability to document potential electoral irregularities or improprieties.
“Obviously, we don’t want people chatting on the phone and disturbing other voters. However, I think it’s important that we don’t inadvertently prevent voters from using their cameras to record intimidation or fraud in the polling place,” Stewart said during the full chamber’s April 6 debate on the bill.
Republicans showed no interested in Stewart’s suggested edits. Glen Casada, chairman of the House’s 73-member supermajority caucus, reproached Stewart for not raising the issue sooner in the legislative process.
“There’s a reason why we have a committee system,” said the Franklin lawmaker. “Things like this have unintended consequences. Now, it sounds good, it sounds eloquent, but just to throw something on the floor — you don’t even consult with the sponsor — that alone should be a telltale sign that there is something wrong with this amendment. Next time, run the amendments by the sponsor. Next time, let’s use the committee process, that’s where we do the heavy lifting.”
Despite Stewart’s protestations that his “simple amendment” was straightforward and didn’t involve “some sort of tricky financial issue,” it died along party lines, 68-26.
Afterward, Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell declared that without the watchdog protections, the state’s new law will “harm election integrity.”
“We are going to open up our elections to fraud — which I have heard since I have been down here that we are trying to stop election fraud. When now, if a law-abiding citizen sees something happening in a polling place, we are going to have them creating a crime by trying to stop criminal activity,” he said.
Casada didn’t like Mitchell harping on the failed amendment, and rose to cut him off, whereupon Mitchell remarked, “I guess the gentleman from Williamson must be for voter fraud, and he wants to talk so I’ll let him speak.”
Casada responded by accusing Mitchell of violating the lower chamber’s “decorum.”
“You don’t try to be insulting or infantile, and if members cannot abide by House rules, then maybe they lose their right to speak,” said Casada.
Only two Democrats, John DeBerry of Memphis and Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, ultimately joined House Republicans in voting for the bill.
Because the law doesn’t take effect until January, the Legislature could feasibly revisit the issue before next year’s primary and general elections.