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What Does Democracy in Action Look Like? The Polling Place Photo Project
Emily Gertz, 7 Nov 06
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If I ask you, "What does democracy look like in America?", what comes to mind? Boring images of candidates pressing the flesh? Or perhaps aggravating memories of your most-detested media pundit enjoying the sound of her or his own voice, or a politico simultaneously avoiding a question and mangling the language?

What about images of the fundamental act of democracy: citizens casting their votes?

The Polling Place Photo Project is a participatory panopticon project that asks citizens to capture and share photos of democracy in action. "By documenting their local voting experience on November 7," explains the site, "voters can contribute to an archive of photographs that captures the richness and complexity of voting in America."

Does everything go smoothly at your polling place? Who's staffing the site? Is the machine broken? Is it a shiny new Diebold device or (as in the case of my Congressional district in NYC) something that probably dates from the height of the Cold War? Is someone handing out pamphlets a little too close to the polling place to be legal? Whatever's happening, the project asks you to document it and post with descriptive info via its online form.

The stated goal is to gather images of every polling place in America, so don't worry that yours is too small or humble, or that you belong to the "wrong" party. And it's an open-source project: all images contributed will be rights-controlled under an "Attribution No Derivatives" Creative Commons license, and may be shared with other sites, including,,, and

Unlike some of the video projects Jon has blogged below, The Polling Place Photo Project isn't setting out to catch voting irregularities per se, although that seems likely to happen if the project gets enough submissions. As I read it, the idea is to create an alternative to the typical images that glut the mainstream media during an election day, and also to make transparent what this most basic of American actions looks like. By the very nature of creating a photograph of it, that action gets elevated into something noteworthy -- and just as important as the punditry and posturing by a select few that tends to define even the most local news outlet's political coverage.

It's an experiment in citizen journalism and networked observation.

Note: The rules for what's legal in terms of photography at polling places varies from state to state. Call your state election officials to find out the rules for your locale, and see the Election Blogger's Legal Guide for info and to get questions answered by Stanford Law students.

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This is a beautiful concept, especially with such a lack of participation in the voting process by nearly half of this country's citizens. I'll be adding a picture or two today :)

Posted by: Victoria E on 7 Nov 06

Great article, Emily. I'd love to see folks do this for voting worldwide, to see a range of technique and atmosphere. Inked hands, penciled Xs, machines, queues. I geeked out on this a bit when I wrote this old post on ballot design in 2004; it was cool to see all the approaches that different regions took to designing elections.

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 7 Nov 06

Did you upload photos, Victoria? I just put five up on the project's site.

In NYC we're using lever machines that date from the 60's -- no fancy designs on the ballots, that's for sure. They date back to when my parents were my age. This is the last election using these machines before the state goes over to some kind of electronic format.

They are pretty much bespoke machines and when they break it's a drag (I was on line for nearly three hours in 2000, waiting to vote in Carroll Gardens, while they tried to get one of the two machines for my voting district working again ). But I'm going to miss them. They're like the steampunk of voting machines. Flipping the little black levers next to the candidate's names, and then swinging the big red lever at the bottom of the machine from right back to left, recording your vote with a satisfying thunk.

And I'm probably going to miss that paper trail, too...

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 7 Nov 06

Citizen photojournalism! I submited a painting I did yesterday from a picture I took at my polling location. Thanks for the post.

Posted by: Ashley Cecil on 8 Nov 06



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