AUGUSTA, Maine — A new bill under consideration by the Legislature would create a 15-foot buffer zone between voters at the polls and activists videotaping their activities.

The bill, LD 1574, was proposed by Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham after complaints emerged on Election Day in November 2015 about a group called Project Dirigo video recording people gathering signatures at several polling locations, mostly in southern Maine. The group was collecting signatures to force a referendum on requiring background checks for all gun sales in Maine.

Diamond said he fears the practice could become commonplace and eventually deter voters who don’t want the hassle from voting.

“The key here is that because this happened, they’re all going to get the idea now and it’s going to really mushroom in Maine,” Diamond said Monday when he introduced the bill to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

Diamond’s bill would require videographers at polling places to be at least 15 feet from a voter either voting or signing a petition. Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, as well as Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, said they support the bill as long as accommodations are made for the media and the public’s First Amendment right to petition.

“Someone who is against a petition has a right to dissuade people from signing the petition but they can’t do it in a way that violates the voter’s right to sign a petition,” Flynn said. “[A polling location] is a public space and we feel that as long as there is a setback and they’re not getting in the voter’s personal space, we’re not against it. … You can’t interfere with the passage of voters.”

Also speaking in support of the bill was Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association, whose members voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill.

“One of the major concerns is that this is making people feel uncomfortable at the polling place,” Herman said. “It’s something our members don’t feel should be able to happen.”

Maine law restricts who may be within the guardrail enclosure inside a polling place to election officials and no more than two voters in excess of the number of voting booths. Anyone is allowed to stay outside the guardrail enclosure “as long as they do not attempt to influence votes or interfere with their free passage,” according to the law. Election wardens have authority under the law to eject a person from the polling place in that situation.

Dunlap urged the committee, which will make a recommendation on the bill in the coming days, to proceed carefully.

“This piece of legislation does give local election officials a tool to work with,” he said. “This is a pretty big deal and we want to make sure we address it in a fair way.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.