Pa. board limits news-media access to ‘election central’

Friday, April 8, 2011

LANCASTER, Pa. — A central Pennsylvania county elections board has taken final action barring reporters from the building where election night ballots are tabulated, a move media organizations say would obstruct what should be an open and public process.

The plan by Lancaster County election officials, approved April 6, will move the news media across the street from the warehouse building in a business park where votes are counted.

Members of the media previously were allowed to sit at a table in a corner of the warehouse, though they could not access the office in the warehouse where votes were counted. Candidates and political party officials would still be allowed inside “election central.”

The space where the news media were allowed is needed to store election supplies from poll workers, Mary Stehman, the county’s chief elections clerk, told the election board April 6. Such supplies include materials provided by the county to run a polling place, except for voting machines.

“So we’re moving the media across the street to a lounge that is very nice. It has a very strong Wi-Fi signal, it has electrical outlets, comfortable chairs,” Stehman said. “There’s even a gas fireplace.”

The proposal as originally written did not specifically outline the media policy in the elections warehouse, though Stehman told the election board: “They’re allowed in the area designated for them. … They would not be allowed in the warehouse.”

Editor Charles Raymond Shaw of the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era newspaper said he’s strongly opposed to the decision, which does a “disservice to the public.”

“A media presence at the vote reception site does not interfere with the vote counting, but provides a check in this important process,” Shaw said. “If candidates and party officials are allowed in this space there’s absolutely no reason why the media cannot have a presence.

“This is a blow against transparency.”

The decision may also be unconstitutional, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, citing Pennsylvania’s Election Code.

“As far as the First Amendment goes, we are talking about a process that it supposed to be open,” she told the newspaper. “The press is being completely barred from viewing that process.”

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