Your Village: Are security cameras at voting sites watching voters cast ballots?

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Vote Here sign, Johnson County Administration Building, Nov. 1, 2018 — Paul Brennan/Little Village

I voted early yesterday at the Johnson Co. Municipal Building and couldn’t help but notice that there are multiple surveillance cameras pointed at the voting area. I asked an election official if the cameras were turned off, and he said they should be. Are surveillance cameras in polling locations allowed to be recording while the polls are open? — Aaron, Iowa City, via email.

The election worker, while no doubt well-meaning, was wrong about the security cameras in the lobby of the Johnson County Administration Building, where early in-person voting is taking place.

“They are on,” Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert told Little Village in a phone interview. Weipert was certain, because he was looking at the security camera feeds as he was answering LV’s questions.

“At no time is the quality good enough that we can tell how you’re voting,” Weipert explained. “We can just see a face. The cameras aren’t even zoomed in enough that we could see what part of the ballot you’re filling in.”

The situation is much the same in Linn County, according to Linn County Auditor Joel Miller.

“I just went out and verified that while you can see a person with the cameras, the resolution is so poor, I’m not sure we’d be able to identify the person,” Miller said. “You definitely can’t see any ballots.”

“Because of its placement, the one camera near the booths [where early in-person voting is taking place] has a great shot of the light fixture,” he added. “If someone steals the light fixture, we might be able to identify them. Otherwise, it’s pretty worthless.”

Miller said he would look into getting the camera repositioned.

Both auditors said the camera issue hadn’t been raised before. Security cameras in polling places aren’t addressed in Iowa code, and the Secretary of State’s office hasn’t issued any guidelines on the matter to the county auditors, who are responsible for administering elections.

A different camera issue did come up during the 2016 election — ballot selfies. It wasn’t clear at the time if it was legal for the selfie-inclined to snap a photo while voting was legal in Iowa. Secretary of State Paul Pate issued a statement discouraging ballot selfies, but couldn’t point to any specific law prohibiting them. Since then, the legislature clarified the situation.

Ballot selfies are legal, as long as the picture-taker isn’t disrupting the voting process, bothering other voters or using the selfie as part some voter fraud scheme.

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“I’ve always been for them. We’re a college town,” Weipert said. “After all, I can’t come to your house and stop you from taking a selfie with an absentee ballot, so as long as you’re not causing a problem I don’t see why I should stop you at a polling place.”

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