Exit Polls and Early Election Calls Interfere with Our Democratic Process

I am as eager as the next person to know the results of tonight's presidential election, but also know that I should restrain my intense interest. In principle, I oppose early projections in any state until all the polls across the entire nation are closed.

I'm really at odds with myself on this because I really want to see my favorite candidates win tonight and celebrate before it gets too late in the evening, but I also know that early projections often cause problems and have done so for years now.

So bear with me. I will make few friends in what I am writing right now, but before you dismiss my thoughts out of hand, please first consider my argument and consider whether any irreparable harm would be done if the networks and others, one day in the future, voluntarily waited to broadcast their estimates until all the polls nationwide were closed.

I first made this argument in the Chicago Tribune, exactly twenty years ago today on Nov. 4, 1988 in an article titled "Polls, news media, and a distorted electoral process." I make this argument every four years.

In my mind, it is simply wrong when the news media, and especially all the networks, "call the election" hours before the polls close in other states further west.

Why, you ask?

Because it can influence voter turnout in those states where the polls are still open. Even though an early call might not affect the true, final presidential outcome nationwide or surely in a state like California that everyone understandably assumes will go for Obama tonight, it can dishearten some voters who have not yet voted.

Campaign workers for non-presidential candidates, and the candidates themselves are also affected.

Early projections in one state that cause the presidential election to be called, can change the results in very close races in other states for congress, or city council, if people change their behavior as a result of what they've heard, either staying home or, by contrast, being more motivated to go out and vote. In other words, the early announcement that the presidential race is over, or even heavily trending one way mucks with our nation's electoral process.

So called scientific studies have been conducted that the networks like to cite. The studies they cite suggest that there is no such effect, but what do you expect them to say, and furthermore, how can you do a perfect experimental test of what would have happened if you hadn't called the election when you did?

An early projection of the presidential race could also conceivably affect the outcome in a close senate race this year that then could tip the balance one way or the other as to whether or not the democrats get the filibuster proof Senate they are looking for tonight. Unlikely yes, but why should there be any risk at all, I ask?

Who gave the right to the media to have such power and interfere this way?

Early calls that are accurate can cause problems enough, but when the early call is wrong it does even more damage, some of it very long lasting, as we saw in the 2000 election where the networks couldn't make up their minds, first calling Florida for Gore, then taking it back.

The late Sam Donaldson of ABC once defended the early call practice by saying "How can we sit on the news when we have it, it's our duty to report the news as soon as we have it?," or words to that effect.

I would respond as follows:

First, the news media sit on the news all the time. National news does it, though local news is worse and the more habitual offender.

"Deadly shooting on local college campus" was broadcast in the New York area some years ago and parents and loved ones remain very agitated for many minutes across three states. Then we waited through 27 minutes of other news to learn where the shooting occurred. Is that good news practice?

When it comes time for our most solemn duty as citizens--to vote--that practice should not be taken lightly, or interfered with by the competitive interests of the media to glue viewers to the screen for advertising and build future increased ratings and audiences for more advertising revenue.

Second, calling elections early undermines democracy and makes many people feel even more politically powerless than they already feel. Every year, some voters report feeling that their vote somehow counts even less because an hour or two before they were going to vote after getting off work on the west coast or in Hawaii or Alaska, driving home they hear on the radio that someone has already been elected president.

Here they've been all geared up for months to vote for their favorite candidate for president, and they hear it is all over before they even begin to steer their car to their polling place. In a word, that sucks.

Third, who is holding a gun to the head of the networks or newspapers or anyone else forcing them to exit poll or make these projections in the first place? No one.

As noted, I do personally like to follow the polls myself as they develop through a campaign and I'd be among the first to miss them, but we should all remind ourselves that polls also affect fund raising, staff morale, and the ability for some campaigns to get the vote out. These are among the reasons that France has, at times, prohibited polling weeks before elections.

Polling is an entirely voluntary activity of the news media and if you stretch my argument it's not hard to see how polling, and especially exit polling, is tantamount to the creation of news by the news media. After all, you're not to stage a news event.

How is deliberately obtaining samples of people leaving polling places and then compiling self-reports of how they say they voted and then using complex mathematical formulae to analyze those data not, in some ways, creating the news-- not out of whole cloth--mind you, but nonetheless creating a story where it did not occur naturally, in its own time and on its own, and without quite a lot of professional help from statisticians and a phalanx of exit pollsters?

Our first amendment prevents laws from being enacted that would restrain the news media, and there are very good reasons for the amendment and its power. Press freedom is critical in a democracy, but here the press abuses this freedom by causing interference with voting and other campaign and electoral processes.

In the ideal, enough governmental and public pressure could be brought to bear so that the news media would govern themselves far more than they do.

Nearly every four years there are hearings in Congress where the networks say they'll do better next time and then some things are done but the problem is never substantially addressed. And yes, they lay down new rules every four years for themselves, but they often don't abide by them and they never go far enough.

While they do often wait to announce their projection till the polls in a particular state are closed, they do not hesitate to say that now, with enough electoral votes in these certain states, all of our other early projections strongly suggest that Senator Smith or Senator Jones will be the next president of the United States.

Yes, we've all been anxiously waiting for these results for nearly two years now, but while people are voting, why don't we learn to be more patient and just wait a little while longer?