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Time for Exit Polls to Exit
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There's time enough for the television networks to get prepared to decently cover the voting for president in November, time enough for them to figure out a way to avoid a repeat of the ludicrous performance that marked their election night coverage during the last presidential race.

But though there's plenty of time and an obvious need for the networks to change their approach, it's highly unlikely they'll do anything, despite what happened on Nov. 7, 2000. They undoubtedly will continue to rely heavily on exit polling, even though that's what caused their great problems that election night.

The use of exit polls to project winners before votes are counted and before some voters have even cast them always has been highly troublesome. But never have the networks caused more trouble -- or looked more foolish.

Remember how they initially reported that Al Gore had won Florida, then that it was "too close to call," and finally that the state and thus the presidential election actually had gone to George W. Bush.

Many Americans went to bed believing that the still undecided race had been decided, web sites spread the word, newspapers went to press declaring Bush the winner.

The exit polling that led to those and other serious problems was of no benefit to voters. Exit polls rarely are. They are meant primarily to benefit the networks that shamelessly use them for their own aggrandizement.

Why the hurry anyway? Why not wait for actual vote counts?

Why? For the same reason everything else is done on commercial television: Money.

The networks aren't aiming to further the democratic process. They are seeking the bigger audiences that mean higher ratings and thus more advertising dollars. And telling viewers the political future as quickly as possible is one way to do it.

The networks' news readers and reporters, spurred into a competitive frenzy by the primitive journalistic urge to be first, are only too happy to join in the ratings chase.

Under heavy pressure from Congress, the networks did agree in 1985 to not declare winners in any state until all of the state's polls closed.

But that did not address the more serious problems caused by the networks' practice of declaring the winners in eastern states as early as two to three hours before the polls in western and midwestern states closed and even though only as little as one percent of the nationwide vote had been tallied.

That discouraged hundreds of thousands of westerners from voting in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections which put Ronald Reagan into the White House.

Bill Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1995 also were declared long before western polls closed. In 2000 the networks, which often have ignored even their agreement to withhold projections within particular states, declared Bush the winner in one of Florida's two time zones an hour before polls in the other zone -- the Panhandle area -- had closed. Hundreds of late hour voters who were waiting in line at Panhandle precincts went home without voting after hearing the network reports.

Exit poll projections undoubtedly influenced turnout in other states as well. Three hours before West Coast polls closed, for instance, the networks were reporting that Indiana, Kentucky and South Carolina had gone for Bush, and Vermont and Florida for Gore. The calls came only a minute or two after the polls in those states had closed.

Exit polls can be of value in analyzing the nature, needs and desires of the electorate. But the damages they do far outweighs any possible value.

The networks themselves acknowledge that they need to exercise greater care in presenting and interpreting the polls. True reform, however, requires much more than that.

Close polling places across the country at 9 p.m. eastern standard time or another uniform time, say some members of Congress. But that would be complicated, costly, and highly inconvenient for many voters. It would amount to what one critic decried as "a transformation of the political system for the convenience of the networks."

How much better it would be for the networks to act responsibly and delay reporting exit poll results until after all polls nationwide closed.

Dangerous idea, say network executives -- it would interfere with the public's First Amendment "right-to-know." As one executive put it, "When we have the facts, we cannot conceal them."

Nonsense. Broadcasters commonly delay transmission of journalistic information, on election night as at any other time, in order to inform us of the sterling qualities of this or that product or to present equally sterling entertainment. They also regularly hold off reporting material provided them by news sources until release times specified by the sources.

It's obvious we could wait for votes to be tallied without endangering the First Amendment in the slightest. But since the networks won't agree, there's only one thing to do.

If someone outside your polling place on Nov. 9 this year dares ask how you've voted, say it -- and say it loud:

"None of your damn business!"

Copyright Dick Meister