Sin­clair to call on vot­ers to pro­vide polling place video

Broad­cast­ing com­pany asks citizens to mon­i­tor polls

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Lor­raine Mirabella

Tele­vi­sion sta­tions owned by Sin­clair Broad­cast Group will ask view­ers to go to polling places on Elec­tion Day and cap­ture smart­phone video for news broad­casts or web­sites, to give au­di­ences first-per­son voter ac­counts while putting “eyes and ears” on the con­tentious pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Sin­clair, the na­tion’s largest in­de­pen­dent broad­caster, and the Bos­ton-based mo­bile video com­pany Burst an­nounced plans Tues­day to in­cor­po­rate viewer-gen­er­ated videos into Sin­clair’s elec­tion cov­er­age.

“It’s in-the-mo­ment con­tent-shar­ing, and we are com­mit­ted to giv­ing our view­ers the abil­ity to share their ex­pe­ri­ences on Elec­tion Day,” said Scott Liv­ingston, vice pres­i­dent of news for the Hunt Val­ley-based broad­caster.

Some ob­servers said the ef­fort is merely an ex­pan­sion of so­cial me­dia shar­ing. But oth­ers fore­saw po­ten­tial prob­lems in send­ing un­trained citizens to watch polls that are al­ready well-mon­i­tored.

A spokes­woman for the ACLU of Mary­land said the or­ga­ni­za­tion would “look closely at it.”

“This is def­i­nitely a new is­sue,” spokes-

wo­man Mered­ith Cur­tis said. “At this point, the only thing I can say def­i­nitely — we do have some con­cerns it would have the ef­fect of voter in­tim­i­da­tion. Po­ten­tially vot­ers would be mon­i­tored by other vot­ers at the polling place.”

Sin­clair and Burst launched the “Join Vote 2016” cam­paign in re­ac­tion to “rhetoric of both cam­paigns, of what may or may not be hap­pen­ing at the polls,” Burst spokesman Chris Nahil said.

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump has warned re­peat­edly that the elec­tion will be “rigged.” His cam­paign has en­cour­aged his sup­port­ers to watch the polls for voter fraud.

Sup­port­ers of Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton have warned that such calls amount to an in­vi­ta­tion to voter in­tim­i­da­tion.

“The main cam­paign is for cap­tur­ing what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing on the ground at polling places given all the crazi­ness,” Nahil said. “It seemed like a great op­por­tu­nity to do what we do, gather real au­then­tic con­tent and find out whether what ei­ther of the can­di­dates is say­ing is re­ally hap­pen­ing. Has there been voter in­tim­i­da­tion?”

Nahil said view­ers will be in­structed to fol­low polling place reg­u­la­tions when tak­ing videos.

Rules gov­ern­ing polling places vary from state to state. Mary­land pro­hibits the use of elec­tronic record­ing de­vices in­side polling places.

Nikki Baines Charl­son, deputy di­rec­tor of the State Board of Elec­tions, de­clined to ex­press an opin­ion about the ef­fect of record­ing out­side the polling sta­tions, where it would be le­gal.

Mary­land Demo­cratic Party spokes­woman Jazzmen S. Kn­oderer said the party en­cour­ages vot­ers to ad­here to state reg­u­la­tions cov­er­ing elec­tronic de­vices dur­ing early vot­ing and on Elec­tion Day.

Joe Clus­ter, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Repub­li­can Party, said Sin­clair’s use of viewer videos would give them more cam­eras on the ground. He said it’s no dif­fer­ent from other forms of video shar­ing.

John T. Wil­lis, a pro­fes­sor of govern­ment and pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more’s Col­lege of Pub­lic Af­fairs, said shoot­ing video within the guide­lines set for polling places comes with democ­racy.

“One of the good things about Amer­i­can elec­tions is they are open and trans­par­ent, and any­body can watch,” Wil­lis said. “We have in­ter­na­tional ob­servers com­ing to watch our elec­tions. Jus­tice Depart­ment ob­servers. The no­tion that peo­ple are watch­ing elec­tions is a wide­spread no­tion.”

But he said there’s a fine line be­tween an ob­server’s right to record a video and a voter’s right to cast a bal­lot with­out in­tim­i­da­tion or ha­rass­ment.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween tak­ing a shot of a polling place and then tak­ing a pho­to­graph or video of a voter and walk­ing right be­hind them all the way from the car to the precinct,” he said. “That kind of in­tim­i­dat­ing ac­tion would vi­o­late laws.”

Todd Eberly, co­or­di­na­tor of pub­lic pol­icy stud­ies at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land, saw the po­ten­tial for prob­lems and for con­fu­sion.

“They are en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to take video at their polling place, even though most peo­ple have no idea if it’s le­gal,” Eberly said. “The greater con­cern is you may be en­cour­ag­ing vig­i­lante poll watch­ing ... some­one who feels they are part of the me­dia, part of the watch­dogs out there, mak­ing sure elec­tions are fair and tak­ing it upon them­selves to pro­tect the process.

“We have poll watch­ers. We have elec­tion judges.”

He said there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween shar­ing video on Twit­ter or Face­book and “do­ing this be­cause you feel you’re part of a larger broad­cast in­dus­try that has been em­pow­ered.”

About 50 Sin­clair-owned sta­tions around the coun­try, in­clud­ing Fox45 in Bal­ti­more, have signed on to the cam­paign, Liv­ingston said.

Sin­clair, an in­vestor in Burst as well as a client, has used the Burst plat­form to pull in viewer videos dur­ing the Sum­mer Olympics in Rio, Hur­ri­cane Matthew and the Preak­ness, Liv­ingston said.

Nahil said par­tic­i­pat­ing Sin­clair sta­tions will broad­cast a call to ac­tion and of­fer a link where view­ers can upload their videos. In­di­vid­ual sta­tions will de­cide what makes it on air or on the web.

Burst is of­fer­ing its mo­bile video plat­form free for a lim­ited time dur­ing elec­tion sea­son.

“Mo­bile video can pro­vide ‘eyes and ears’ on a mas­sive scale at polling places across the coun­try which serves the in­tegrity of the elec­toral process while also pro­vid­ing me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions with au­then­tic and im­me­di­ate con­tent,” Bryant McBride, Burst’s founder and CEO, said in a state­ment.

Liv­ingston said Sin­clair sees the part­ner­ship as a way to build viewer en­gage­ment in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Cus­tomers of Burst, founded in 2011, in­clude Sin­clair, NESN, Ac­cuWeather and Fox Sports Aus­tralia. Sin­clair owns and op­er­ates pro­grams or pro­vides sales ser­vices to 173 tele­vi­sion sta­tions af­fil­i­ated with all ma­jor net­works.

Sin­clair and Burst said they be­lieve view­ers both in and out­side the United States want to see “our coun­try’s be­hav­ior at the lo­cal polls dur­ing Elec­tion Day.”

FELIPE DANA/AP

Dis­placed peo­ple stand on the back of a truck Tues­day at a check­point near Qa­yara, south of Mo­sul, in north­ern Iraq.

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