Were it not for George Holliday, you would have never heard of Rodney King and American history would have been changed irrevocably. Holliday was the bystander who in 1991 videotaped King’s beating at the hands of Los Angeles police, an early example of the extraordinary power of a single citizen with a video camera.

Fifteen years later, a group of filmmakers and left-wing activists have created Video the Vote (videothevote.org), which is enlisting volunteer videographers – “citizen journalists” – to work cooperatively with “Election Protection” lawyers to document problems at the polls as they occur. They will upload the results to YouTube where, in nearly real time, Americans may be confronted with compelling images of voter disenfranchisement.

“The old cliche, a picture’s worth a thousand words, well, a video is worth a million,” said Adam Stofsky, a recent Harvard Law School graduate who founded the New Media Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington.

It was the video images of King that made him a national symbol of black victimization at the hands of the police, and, when the officers were ultimately acquitted in the beating, the spark for the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

Stofksy, whose group is partnering with Video the Vote (videothevote.org), along with the People for the American Way Foundation, Common Cause and Working Assets, said facts are great, but if they are backed up by vivid video they are “more likely to get on the blogs and then that makes it more likely to get on the national news.”

Thrown together in the last six weeks, the project had enlisted about 500 volunteers less than a week before Election Day, said James Rucker, the former director of grassroots mobilization at MoveOn.Org and a founder of Video the Vote. Rucker predicted it will have corralled a thousand hands by Tuesday.

While Rucker and Stofsky pledge the effort will be scrupulously non-partisan and non-invasive, some harbor doubts about the drive’s political motives. They envision an army of would-be Oliver Stones storming the citadels of American democracy.

It’s a “bad idea,” said John Fortier, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who studies elections and sees “a danger of allowing observing actors to get too involved in the administration of the election.”

Fortier noted that the political parties already have workers on hand to document irregularities, adding, “I’m not sure videotape adds much to the watchdog process.”

Republican National Committee spokesman Josh Holmes was also wary.

“Ensuring every voter can cast a ballot free from intimidation is always the ultimate goal of the Republican Party,” Holmes said. “If this group shares that goal, we embrace (the idea), but a glance at their partisan allegiances raises suspicions. We sincerely hope this is not an effort to intimidate Republican voters.”

Stofsky said Video the Vote is making every effort to avoid even a hint of partisanship, asking volunteers to “scrape the bumper stickers off their cars.”

Rucker, who lives in San Francisco and founded colorofchange.org as an on-line African-American citizens’ lobby, is keenly aware that photographing people waiting to vote had been used to intimidate black and Latino voters in the past. Video the Vote is training volunteers in person and by teleconference and has issued 15 guidelines.

Guideline No. 1 – “The Cardinal Rule: The job of videographers capturing video on Election Day, is to observe and document, not to interfere in the election process in any way. … While there are many potential benefits of this project, the possibility for this effort to disrupt the voting process is significant – videographers must be aware of this and make every effort to avoid disruption.”

And Guideline No. 8: “You should never enter a polling place with a camera or microphone, unless you’ve been authorized to do so by an election official and an Election Protection attorney.”

Election Protection is the name of a coalition formed in the wake of the 2000 election – led by People for the American Way Foundation, the Lawyers’ Committee and the NAACP – to dispatch election lawyers as needed to trouble spots on Election Day. The difference this year is that when a call comes in to the Election Protection Hotline (1-866-Our-Vote), Video the Vote will endeavor to find a nearby videographer to dispatch as well.

Rucker said video will be vetted before being passed through to YouTube “to make sure the stuff is not some crazy video and that it’s truly relevant.”

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