A new state law that sharply restricts reporters’ access to Minnesota polling places is raising fears that it will hinder the news media’s efforts to learn whether the voting is being conducted fairly.
In one of the most restrictive such laws in the country, reporters and photographers must have a letter of permission to get into a polling place, and they cannot stay for more than 15 minutes. The Legislature passed the law last spring.
Some media experts said the intent of the law was to guarantee journalists access to polling places after local elections officials tightened restrictions on their own in recent elections. But it is also a departure from past practice, in which reporters and photographers were routinely allowed inside polling places.
Most states limit access to polling places in some manner, though in many cases statutes specifically prohibit only “electioneering,” or solicitation of voters.
“I don’t know of any state that has a law that is this restrictive,” said Jane Kirtley, a media ethics and law professor at the University of Minnesota. “This idea that you basically can’t be there unless you have a permission slip is something that I have not seen anyplace else.”
President Bush and John Kerry are in a tight race in Minnesota, seen as a key battleground state. Both Republicans and Democrats say they will send hundreds of monitors to polling places, and elections officials are bracing for challenges to some voters’ eligibility.
“The practice in the past was that media representatives had free access, as long as they weren’t being disruptive. And there is no indication that there was disruption over the years,” said John Borger, an attorney for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
Anders Gyllenhaal, the newspaper’s editor, said the law “is a great example of creating a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.”
He said it is important that reporters get a look at the polling sites to make sure the system is working properly. “One of the roles of the media is to be watching every step of the way and report on the successes and the shortcomings,” he said.
St. Paul Pioneer Press editor Vicki Gowler agreed. “The fact that we’re restricted means ... it can be staged,” she said.
Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer’s office said the new law clears up any ambiguity and ensures the media can get in.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said that in the absence of a clear law, some local elections officials were shutting out reporters.
Reporters and photographers in Minnesota will now be required to have a letter from city election clerks or county auditors that gives them permission to enter specific polling places.
The law passed with little dissent in either the Republican-controlled House or the Democratic-majority Senate.