Sinclair Broadcast Group to call on voters to provide polling place video

Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast teams with Burst to broadcast viewer-generated Election Day video.

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," spokeswoman 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."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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