The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

June 20, 2013

Court’s ruling on polls leaves public in the dark

By Nick HIldebrand
Herald News Editor/Weekends

---- — It was an Election Day in the mid-’90s. Word reached the newsroom that the power was out at the polls in Kennard.

With nothing better to do until the results started coming in a couple of hours, I headed out to the old Grange hall that doubled as a polling place.

Inside the dim hall there were a few poll workers sitting behind a table that held their books and forms and the “I voted” stickers – and an oil lamp. That lamp said these folks were ready to deal with whatever Election Day handed them.

That was back in the day, before the fancy digital machines that have streamlined and speeded up voting in the 21st century – and in my mind robbed voting of much of the ceremony that the old, chunky, pull-the-curtain, flip-the-levers machines provided.

I can’t recall if the folks who did their civic duty in Kennard that day were using those machines or just filling out paper ballots – the journalist’s memory, unaided by a notebook or clips, is not always reliable – but neither option required a plug.

You didn’t need electricity to exercise the franchise back then and a power outage wouldn’t threaten the integrity of the vote. But you might need some light before the polls closed at 8.

I got a story out of it.

And I learned a lesson: There’s always a story at the polls.  When the power goes out, it’s easy. Sometimes it’s harder, but it’s always there.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s appeal of a federal court ruling that seems to bar reporters and photographers from entering polling places on Election Day doesn’t invalidate that schooling. It does seem likely to make getting that story a little harder.

The court’s action lets stand current law, which bars anyone but election workers, poll watchers and voters from coming within 10 feet of the precinct entrance.

For most of my career as a reporter, I was unaware that this law applied to the press and routinely violated it. (Which I guess is proof of another newspaper lesson: It’s always better to do what you think is right and apologize later than it is to ask permission and run the risk of somebody saying no.)

God knows there’s little sympathy out there for journalists and even less trust that our work is anything but lies made up to sell papers and advance a left-wing agenda. Selling newspapers is The Herald’s goal, it’s true, but the only agenda we advance is the truth, or as close as we can get to it.

And the best way to do that is to get close to it.

That’s what Post Gazette reporters and photographers wanted to do when they were denied access to the polls in November 2012. They wanted to see first-hand what happened when voters, many for the first time, were asked for identification.

First-hand. Because that’s how journalists do the job, or at least that’s how it’s done best. The Internet and cell phones and their offspring the smart phone provide a great temptation to imagine that we know what’s going on all the time, everywhere. Those advances have made reporting easier in some ways, but they can’t replace actually being where news is happening when it’s happening.

Like the polls on Election Day.

The press doesn’t need access to write fluffy stories about plucky poll workers overcoming adversity. The press needs access so you can be assured that nothing shady is going on and informed when something is.

As disreputable and distrusted as the media is now, it’s still all we have to spread the word about things we ought to know, want to know and need to know.

The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t so much leave the press in the dark as it does the public. We’ll get an Election Day story one way or another.



Nick Hildebrand is The Herald’s News Editor/Weekends. Contact him at nhildebrand@sharonherald.com