Judge rejects settlement over polling place access

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A federal judge Monday gave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Allegheny County Board of Elections a week to come up with alternatives to a consent order that they hoped would resolve a dispute over media access to the polls on Nov. 6 and beyond.

The newspaper has sued the board and Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, claiming that barring media from the polls, especially during the first election governed by the voter identification law, violates the First Amendment right to gather news. A state law bars anyone but voters and poll workers from coming within 10 feet of polling places.

U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer said at a motion hearing that she was reluctant to sign the order proposed by the Post-Gazette and the board that would allow media into polling places to record voters signing in to cast their ballots. Under the order, media would respect the wishes of voters who didn't want to be photographed, and would not capture images of people casting ballots.

Ms. Aichele, however, opposes the settlement.

"The court's inclination here is to dismiss this lawsuit," Judge Fischer said. Parties in a lawsuit "cannot agree to disregard valid state laws," she added.

If the Post-Gazette and the county can, by Friday, come up with an alternative procedure -- perhaps a settlement of limited duration that need not be enshrined in a consent order -- she would consider it, she said.

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