U.S. judge bars Colorado from enforcing law banning voter 'selfies'

DENVER (Reuters) - A federal judge in Colorado blocked enforcement of a 19th-century state law that bans voters from showing a completed ballot to others, the latest in a flurry of mixed legal rulings on whether to restrict election “selfies” on social media.

U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello in Denver issued a preliminary injunction against an 1891 Colorado statute that makes it a misdemeanor offense to reveal the contents of one’s ballot.

The ruling came in response to two separate lawsuits by voters challenging enforcement of the law on grounds that it violates their free-speech rights.

“By issuing an injunction in this case, Coloradans get what they are entitled to - clarity on an issue that implicates fundamental constitutional rights,” Arguella wrote in her 26-page ruling.

The controversy erupted last week after Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey reminded voters of the law, which he said would “include posting your completed ballot to social media.”

However, prosecutors from several jurisdictions, including Denver, filed declaration with the court this week saying they would not enforce the misdemeanor law unless evidence showed that voter intimidation or coercion was involved.

“Based on our review of applicable law and societal changes, including the ubiquity of social media ... the District Attorney’s Office would not charge anyone with an offense ... for taking a photograph or video of a completed Colorado mail-in ballot,” Denver prosecutor Joseph Morales wrote.

Colorado is among 18 states that have laws restricting the taking of photographs in voting booths or of completed ballots. Courts in other states and federal jurisdictions have issued mixed rulings against enforcing such bans.

Federal judges in New York and California refused this week to block enforcement of state laws barring voters from taking photographs of marked ballots, saying it was too close to next Tuesday’s presidential election to issue such injunctions.

Colorado’s attorney general cited the California and New York decisions in defending Colorado’s law.

Lawyers for the Colorado voters said the state’s mail-in voting system, which allows ballots to be filled out anywhere and then either mailed or dropped off, sets Colorado apart from California and New York, where voters must cast ballots at a polling place.

Last month, a federal court sided with a voter who challenged a Michigan anti-selfie statute as a free-speech violation.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Jacqueline Wong