William Drenttel | Essays

Polling Place Photo Project

A Winterhouse Institute and Design Observer initiative in collaboration with AIGA, Design for Democracy and NewAssignment.Net.

The Polling Place Photo Project seeks to advance innovation in citizen journalism by documenting local voter experiences during the U.S. midterm elections on Tuesday, November 7. The goal of all participants is to both engage voters and to document voter experiences at the polling place, harnessing the power of online citizen journalism to build an archive of photographs that capture the richness and complexity of voting in America.

Through an open call for photographs, citizens can post local images and visual stories that, together, form a picture of every polling place in America. Importantly, we are also looking for basic data (zip code, state, ballot type, etc.) that will encourage research into how voting happens and how voting can be made easier, clearer, less confusing, more reliable.

Get your cameras ready: Election Day is November 7, 2006. We need your photographs...

Seriously, we need your pictures of Election Day 2006. The idea for this project came up at a lunch with Jay Rosen, a leader of online citizen journalism, only a month ago. This is a test, and our execution may not be perfect. But we have a group of great partners who have jumped on the potential of this project, and we owe them our thanks. To our many Design Observer readers living in the United States, we ask that you: 1) go to the polls and vote, 2) take your camera with you, and 3) come home and post your photos at Polling Place Photo Project. This is a day in the life of America, the world's oldest democracy.

Partners & Sponsors
The Polling Place Photo Project is part of Design for Democracy, an initiative of AIGA, the professional association for design. The project was conceived by Winterhouse Institute and Design Observer, working in collaboration with Jay Rosen, founder of NewAssignment.Net (a project of New York University's Department of Journalism).

How to Participate
Photographs of your experiences on November 7th may be uploaded here. We are looking to collect photographs of every polling place in America, so you are welcome to participate no matter where you vote, how large or small your polling place is, what kind of ballot you use — or what is your party affiliation.

This is a nonpartisan initiative, and the photographs collected will not be used to further the aims or agenda of any party or candidate. We are interested in how voting happens, how it can be improved, and how the execise of the ballot, perhaps the most basis act in a democracy, can be captured in photographs. If you are wondering what to photograph, take a picture of that!

Submission Guidelines
The submission guidelines are simple: photographs may be submitted by anyone. We are currently focused on the November 7, 2006 election. Do not post old photographs of previous elections. Do not post photographs of polling places that are not in the United States.

You may submit up to five photographs. With your submission of photographs, we are asking for some basic information: name/location of polling place, time, type of ballot, etc. Our submission form also allows you to make comments on your voter experience, and suggestions for improvements. This information will be displayed with your photographs. We do ask for your name and email address, but give you the option that this information not be displayed. If you provide this information, you are acknowledging that researchers may contact you at a future date to learn more about your voting experience. (None of this information will be sold or distributed freely.)

Use of Photographs
In the spirit of public access and broad dissemination, this is an open source project. All photographs are contributed under an "Attribution No Derivatives (by-nd)" Creative Commons license. It is understood that all photographs may be shared with other sites, including pollingplacephotoproject.org, AIGA, Design for Democracy, Design Observer, Winterhouse Institute, PressThink and NewAssignment.Net. Further, the database of photographs may be distributed to other sites, commercial or non-commercial, which share our goal of encouraging voter participation in America. Photographs will not be sold individually for personal profit by any participant; any profits accured will be used to support this project, its maintenance as an archive, and expansion of the archive in future elections. It is our goal that these photographs be used, researched and broadly disseminated, and all contributors willingly (and cheerfully) acknowledge that their photographs are a part of this open source initiative.

Special Note: Photography & Election Laws
Photography of polling places is governed by state and local law — there is no one answer for what is permissible. Every state has different election laws, some which allow photos of polling stations and others which do not. It is important to check your states' procedures to find out what is and isn't acceptable. Most states have laws prohibiting loitering or congregation around the polling place, as well as laws prohibiting any type of intimidation or interruption of voters. The Polling Place Photo Project, and AIGA, encourage all participants in this project to follow all applicable local, state and federal laws. More more information, see the Resources on the site.

Comments [35]

I foresee a lot of outraged posts from all the people who will be hassled by security for trying to take these pictures. Just try taking a picture of a building these days to find out what I mean.
Sorry to sound so glum...


Make up a "press" pass or something. And bring a printed copy of the proposal from PPPP's Web site (or AIGA's post).

Snap away. I'm gonna!

Its your right! Right?

Joe Moran

Wear running shoes, because you want to run fast when they come after you!!!

I found this wonderful Advent Calendar counting down to the Election Day. It has a bunch of great historical imagery from the polling/electoral process:

Check it Out!

the Flickr
of voting season.

Jay Rosen explains the PPPP concept most eloquently in this morning's Huffington Post.

jessica Helfand

I have been warned a number of times about taking in new york city, i've even been asked to delete what i just took. it is going to be a pain in the ass to take photos of the polls in and around the city of new york. i work for the city of new york. maybe i will ask my supervisor and get back to you.
cheema cheema

The virginia response was pretty clear...it's only allowed for journalists and the news media. I've contacted my local delegate with the hopes of having the statute revised....but I'm sure he'll scoff.

I just spoke with an elections official here in Hawaii and she said that it was fine (in our little state) to take pictures, but only if I'm not taking photos of other people because of privacy.

I believe this is an issue everywhere, really - some people wouldn't want their photograph on the web in any case, especially not related to something as personal as voting. So I recommend to try going on the "off" times, like around 10am or 2pm, to make it easier to take photos of the place and not so much of people.

From some of the comments on this project it feels like "voting" is a taboo.

In a sense it is a taboo because you vote behind curtains.

Have you ever seen somebody pump fist up to the air or break in dance after voting?

Voting is boring! Why would I want to see photos of more ugly machines and stuffed up/cramped places.

Most of us have seen what a polling place looks like.

We have already been beaten to a inch of our lives by the political ads.

Do we need anymore reminders?

It seems that in our intellectual design universe we want to make a big deal out of everything...

We put out press releases about a press article, we pay others to pat our backs "design competitions", [If it is a competition shouldn't they be paying us to compete like they do in sports?] and the biggest, we hype design so much when in reality we are in the service business. What we do is not that far away from "Do you want fries with that?"

Our Apple machines have become cash registers pushing fat induced content.

Seeing photos about the voting experience can be as painful as seeing photos of designers in their studio. Do we really care to see them?

A happy proud voting member of the United States of America since 1988.
1 of 300,000,000

To 1 of 300,000,000:

I do not want to disagree with you because when it comes to your participation on election day, your ideas are yours.

However, there is plenty of evidence in modern anthopology that photographs are a good way to capture something of a culture. A national voting day is a unique day every couple of years, and holds the potential to document many experiences: smiling faces and long lines, majestic settings and dilapidated schoolhouses, the morning rush where potential voters give-up and walk away and the calm of an afternoon where no one is in attendence.

Combining 1000s of photographs with some basic data (zip code, time of day, ballot type) has the potential to be a huge research resource for Design for Democracy, and other initiatives to make voting easier, clearer and more participatory.

Minimally, this is an experiment. We hope to learn something and make the next version even richer, more effective.

Give it a try.
William Drenttel

Regarding the legal issues, I believe the law is often unclear (or leaves many openings).

Katey reports that photographs are legal in Hawaii, as long as they respect the privacy of individuals.

Steven says in Virginia it's only OK for journalists and the news media (Code of Virginia, Section 24.2-604). However, another code (Section 604-J-ii) specifically states that one "shall not film or photograph the voter or the ballot in such a way that divulges how any individual voter is voting." E. Randall Wertz, General Registrar, County of Montgomery, Virginia interprets this to mean that "Therefore, you may not take pictures at your polling place." I read this to mean that you cannot take a picture that specifically "divulges how any individual voter is voting," perhaps something quite different. (However, I'm not sure I'd want a run-in with Mr. E. Randall Wertz.) I suspect these differences will be interpreted differently town to town, precinct to precinct, county to county.

I live in a village where we give to the fire department, library and know everyone at town hall. We have done a get-out-the-vote installation across the street from town hall. I will be surprised if I'm not allowed to photograph, and I don't want to bother my country registar with a lot of questions.

Obviously, though, we should all follow the laws of our states.

If you have questions, contact Election Day Bloggers' Legal Guide, a live resource where Stanford law students will answer your questions: http://citmedia.org/projects/electiondaylaw.
William Drenttel

Help us get the word out in this web 2.0 world:

Digg this project at:

Bookmark at del.icio.us:
William Drenttel

Iceland and England would be shocked to learn that the U.S. is the world's oldest democracy.
Antony Van Couvering

We've got a similar project going at JPG Magazine: The Democracy Theme. Participants in the AIGA project might enjoy it, too!
Derek Powazek

The spectacle of photographers loitering in wait about a polling place, of whatever stripe and for whatever reason, might be enough to prevent me from casting my vote that day. Sorry. I'm sure I'm being more emotional than rational.

I wonder if the result would be that one group (e.g., libertarians) were detered from voting more than another (e.g., leftish Democrats). Or maybe net net all such effects would cancel themselves out?
John McVey

And for those of us who voted absentee already—should we send a picture of the room in our house where we discussed the issues and then filled out our mail in ballots?

I'm going to post photo of "absentee ballot" box on the post office counter, where I left mine.

I'm also curious as to the format of other areas' absentee ballots -
- Ink or pencil?
- Inner "security sleeve" or not?
- Signature on outer envelope visible, or hidden?
- Signature on outer envelope running across flap-envelope seam, or not?

I am sorry I'm missing this. And Anna, you've made me a little concerned—I voted "absentee" on the Diebold machine in the county office. Should I be relieved that I voted in a "blue" county, or concerned that I voted on a "red" machine?

My camera will be in use, but at the Tate Modern instead.
Michelle French

Anthony notes that "Iceland and England would be shocked to learn that the U.S. is the world's oldest democracy."

Sorry, this was not meant to be over-statement, which perhaps it is.

Despite the Magna Carta, however, I think most historians would jeer at the idea that the UK was a democracy in 1787: there was a Parliament but only 3 percent of the popularion could vote. And despite a history of community councils, Iceland didn't become a self-ruled country until 1904.

William Drenttel

Anna wrote:
"I'm also curious as to the format of other areas' absentee ballots -
- Ink or pencil?
- Inner "security sleeve" or not?
- Signature on outer envelope visible, or hidden?
- Signature on outer envelope running across flap-envelope seam, or not?"

In California:
Ink not pencil
No inner security sleeve
Signature is require on the back of the outer envelope. It says in both English and Spanish that if the envelope isn't signed that the ballot will not be counted. The ballot itself also needs to be signed though.
It costs 68 cents to mail it. There is not box for these at the P.O.


A brave project which, unfortunately, begs the question:

where was this bravery five years ago?

No one is going to believe this, but here goes...

Bill Clinton left me a phone message asking me to vote for someone (although I forget who).

Bill f-ing Clinton called ME! And I wasn't here to pick up. DANGIT!!!! At least he left a nice message.

Maybe he'll be at my poll tomorrow and I'll get a picture of us --you know, like the fake "buddy shots" people take of themselves and famous people.

Camera is ready!

Joe Moran

If anyone else is scared about doing this... I am, too!

But I'm going to do it anyway. Dammit! Dog Diggity!

Excuses are for wimps! Live. Love. Vote!

Joe Moran

Make up a "press" pass or something. And bring a printed copy of the proposal from PPPP's Web site (or AIGA's post). Snap away. I'm gonna!

Its your right! Right?


Rights have been in short supply since the "War on terror" grabbed America by the throat. I hope everyone is able to document their freedom on Tuesday without incident.

Well I just got back from the poll. Clinton wasn't there. A nice lady took my camera away and politely held it until I was done voting, then gave it back.

And since its foggy this morning and the sun isn't all the way up, the best I'll be able to do is take a shot of the Church where I vote this evening after work, or this weekend.

I tried.

Joe Moran

Voted, shot about 10 photos without hassle. Outside, inside and even while sitting in my little privacy cubicle. Explained the camera to the little lady in charge and she thought it was great idea.

I nearly got thrown out of my polling place while taking photographs. Three elderly women and a man without teeth tried to stop me. When I asked why I couldn't take pictures, they summoned the "supervisor." He told me I wasn't allowed to take any photographs. I asked if it was illegal and he wouldn't say; he just repeated I wasn't allowed to take any photos. But when I told him about the Polling Project, he became intrigued. He tentatively told me I could take pictures of "the place" but "no people." Then the elderly man without teeth told me that the supervisor was a nice man.
debbie millman

Took plenty of nice shots -- even had the people administering the voting process smile for a portrait.

Interesting, since the War on Terror I can't think of any rights which have been in short supply. I'll check my pantry when I get home.
Douglas Dearden

Well, I just voted too, late this evening. Not only was I glad to have cast my lot, but I had numerous pleasant experiences. I knew most of the people at the polling place. Two people on my road showed up to vote at the same time. Most of the town's elected officials were on site. There were poll-watchers, but they were neighbors too.

And, no one said anything about my taking pictures! I just posted my five photographs, a very satisfying validation of my having voted.
William Drenttel

I am glad that so many of you were able to document democracy in peace. Perceived authority was overcome by honesty and forwardness. In response to Mr. Dearden, who believes rights haven't been cut back on:

"The President can now, with the approval of Congress, indefinitely hold people without charge, take away protections against horrific abuse, put people on trial based on hearsay evidence, authorize trials that can sentence people to death based on testimony literally beaten out of witnesses, and slam shut the courthouse door for habeas petitions," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said.

"Nothing could be further from the American values we all hold in our hearts than the Military Commissions Act," he added.

GW's smug smiling puss as he signed it into law was chilling.

This project was a lot of fun for me. I inspired a group of sophomore Communications Design students from PrattMWP to participate. It was educational for them on several levels—some had never voted, others were from different states so they had never seen lever machines. We visited several polling sites within the city and it amazing how extremely different each enviornment is.

Regrettably, as we try to post our images there is a problem with the New York State uploads. ??????????????

We have some really great shots to share. What should we do?
Cindy Koren

On Election Day, I worked in a call center run by Election Protection, a coalition of legal and civil rights groups. I helped dispatch calls for service on behalf of a voting-documentation project, Video the Vote, which was staffed by independent filmmakers and amateur videographers.

On the way home, I stopped by to photograph the floodlit Montgomery County Board of Elections.

My contribution will double the PPPP's record of Maryland.

The legal community can staff dozens of call centers, in spaces donated by some of the world's leading law firms. Only a small portion of the country's lawyers participate, but that number is growing. I saw a visible, effective, campaign, one highly accessible to experienced specialists and to rank amateurs.

I'm excited by the PPPP. I'm especially interested in the photos that show signage and ballot layouts. I'd very much like to see it as a book, perhaps one sold as documentation, at an affordable price. But yesterday, I realized that the graphic design community has no initiative equivalent to Election Protection. The design profession lacks the advocacy and public-service programs that grow out of law and architecture.

Could it, someday?
David Ramos

I'm very interested in the ballots that were photographed. My ballot was about 15 x 28 inches vertical.

The last ballot I used was about 4 x 8 inches vertical.

I've seen a lot of "big" ballots on the PPPP. What was your size ballot?

Joe Moran

Well I just got back from the poll. Clinton wasn't there. A nice lady took my camera away and politely held it until I was done voting, then gave it back.

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