Area poll workers deny access to reporters

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    SUSSEX COUNTY-The picture of a voter entering a booth - often with a baby peering over her or his shoulder - is so commonplace on election day as to be almost a cliche. But in some towns in Sussex County Tuesday, poll workers, citing a New Jersey statute more honored over the years in the breach than in the observance, denied reporters and photographers permission to document the fundamental act of American democracy. Two Straus Newspapers correspondent were told by election workers they could not take pictures in polling places, one in the Pochuck Fire Department in Vernon, the other in the Andover Township municipal building. But election workers in Lafayette in Sussex County and West Milford in Passaic County readily admitted photographers. In Sparta, a reporter was initially told he could not chronicle the scene, then was told he could as long as he didn't talk to anyone. "It's a very sensitive election," said a poll worker at the Pochuck polling location in explaining to photographer Eileen Stanbridge why she couldn't complete her assignment. The worker said that the order not to allow the media entry came from the Sussex County Board of Elections. Officials with the elections board told Straus Newspapers that the order came from the state attorney general's office. But Lee Moore, a spokesman for the N.J. Attorney General, said his office gave no such order, and most veteran journalists could not remember ever being denied access to polling places. Moore said that state law prohibits anyone from entering the polls other than election workers, official challengers, voters, and anyone local officials deem necessary for security. "The law makes no provision for your photographers to be in polling places," he said. "While the law has been on the books for years, Moore said the attorney general does not actively enforce it. "This office has basically left it to the jurisdiction of the individual counties. We have not put out any directive that there will not be folks allowed into the polling places. We left this at the discretion of the polling places." Moore said there is a commonly accepted exception to the law when candidates vote. "Somehow or other, that's a separate category," he said. The law makes no mention of candidates. But they commonly take reporters with them when they vote. Straus Newspapers engaged Mickey Faigen, a lawyer for the Princeton lobbying firm, Issues Management, to attempt to gain access to the polls. Faigen confirmed that, "There is a statute." But, Faigen said, "The notion that in the world's greatest democracy, the press can not observe a polling place from the inside is ludicrous. If the same had been said for Russia, we'd all shake our heads in disbelief. "As long as the press doesn't disrupt voting, they should certainly be there to make sure that the process is valid."