The Government Accountability Board, on a 4-2 vote, went along with other changes affecting election observers - including requiring them to show photo identification at the polls - and sent the proposed rule to the Legislature.
Republicans in control could choose to rewrite the rule, including allowing cameras, but it won't be done in time for the Aug. 12 primary or the Nov. 4 general election barring a special legislative session.
Republican co-chairs of the state Senate and Assembly elections committees had requested the changes, including allowing cameras. Messages left with those lawmakers - Sen. Mary Lazich of New Berlin, and Rep. Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie - were not immediately returned.
The rights of poll watchers have been hotly debated in recent years, as supporters say they play an important role in making sure the law is followed on election day. But critics say they can be distracting or intimidating to people voting.
Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year signed a law allowing poll observers to be as close as 3 feet away from where voters check in.
The board decided against lifting the camera ban after hearing testimony from both supporters and opponents. Those against cameras included Andrea Kaminski, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the League of Women Voters, Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler, and Greg Jones, a representative of the Dane County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
They all said they were concerned that allowing election observers to take video and still pictures could cast a chill over the process and lead some not to vote.
"We believe most voters do not want their pictures taken by a stranger when they come in to vote," Kaminski said.
Former judges on the elections board also expressed fears that high-powered cameras could capture private information on voter registration forms. Minorities are more likely to be photographed than others, and some people have a religious objection to having their pictures taken, said board member Thomas Barland.
"I think it's intimidating," he said.
But board member Tim Vocke, one of the two who voted to allow cameras, said he was willing to give it a try and see if any problems are reported that would warrant future changes. Harold Froehlich joined with Vocke in voting to allow cameras.
Elections board staff had raised concerns with both allowing cameras and requiring poll observers to show photo identification, noting that the rule doesn't say what type of identification is allowable.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has passed a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, but a federal court struck it down as unconstitutional. The photo ID requirement is on hold while the state appeals the ruling.