The secret ballot. How's that for an idea? It's
supposedly been a fundamental right of all citizens since the 1880s.
What if we began taking that right seriously? What if we
decided it doesn't make sense to slip behind a curtain to vote and then dash
outside and blab to a pollster - or to tell all even before we get behind the
No longer would we fuss over the media's use of polls to
declare winners and losers, or likely winners and losers, as quickly as possible
and thus discourage some citizens from going to the polls at all and encourage
others to show up to vote for the front-runners.
No longer would we be burdened with pre-election coverage
that stresses polls and who's winning or losing rather than focusing on the
issues -- coverage that presumes to tell us what will happen before it actually
happens, that presumes to tell us how we will vote before we actually do so.
No longer would we suffer smug post-election coverage
stressing whether we had performed as predicted by the all-knowing media and
their polls and thus had acted "as expected" -- or, of course, had
participated in an "upset" or "surprise" that no one could
possibly have anticipated.
Polls, in any case, are not real news, but artificial media-made
news and entertainment. And when they're badly done, they can cause havoc.
Think, for example, of the exit polls on election night in 2000 that declared
Al Gore as the winner in Florida over George Bush and thus the president-elect.
There's an easy way to stop all this nonsense. The next
time someone dares ask how you're going to vote, or how you voted, remember
your right to the secret ballot. Say it, and say it loud: "None of your
Or lie, as the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko
"All you have to do is tell a little fib," he
explained. "Then go home, sit back, relax, and watch the anchormen slowly
swallow their tongues."
True, exit polls can help show the nature, needs and
desires of the electorate. But there are plenty of other ways to do that
without interfering in the fundamental democratic practice of conducting
Using exit poll results to predict and declare election
winners is only part of the media's interference. They also use the actual vote
totals in their attempts to beat the competition and attract lots of customers
for their advertisers. They carry their treatment of elections as horse races
into the counting of votes on election nights. The polls are closed, the votes
are in and all that remains is that they be counted. But listening to the
media, you'd think the votes were still being cast, minute-by-minute. It's as
if the candidates were racing around the track at Churchill Downs, as if the
order in which their votes happened to be counted made for a contest.
Typically, CNN's Lou Dobbs reported, just as the polls
closed in South Carolina's Republican primary in January, that "we're
going to have interesting contests tonight." And sure enough, on came Wolf
Blitzer to exclaim, "There's a battle underway for second place!"
Minutes later, he excitedly told of candidates who "are now fighting for
The underlying message of such reporting, as of any
commercial television programming, is for us to "stay tuned" - stay
tuned, that is, for the next commercial.
Newspapers can't have as much fun in this regard, but
they do try. They, too, treat vote counting as horse racing. A typical
post-election report recently told readers, for instance, that although early
returns favored a particular candidate, his opponent prevailed after "a
thrilling, nail-biting finish." Another candidate won in "a stunning,
come-from-behind finish." And losers? Well, they often are described as
having "trailed all night."
But at least those reports are based on actual votes
rather than on exit poll information that should be none of the media's damn
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister