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Exit for Exit-Poll Restrictions

September 15, 1985

Historically, states have banned electioneering in areas immediately adjacent to voting places to prevent voters from being harassed--perhaps even bribed--by zealous candidates, campaign workers and others. This no man's land normally runs from just outside the building containing the voting booths to as far as 600 feet away in Louisiana and 1,000 feet in Hawaii.

But the ban on electioneering in most states is a reasonable 100 feet or less from the polling place. That is the current law in California.

The prohibition against anyone contacting a voter would be extended to 300 feet from the polls in California under a bill that has narrowly passed the Legislature with solid Democratic support and solid Republican opposition. That is the length of a football field. The target is not unethical electioneering or harassment of voters on their way to cast their ballots, however. The single goal of the bill is to thwart the efforts of pollsters attempting to interview voters after they have left the voting booth.

The Democrats are upset in particular about network-television broadcasts in the past two presidential elections of the mounting landslides in favor of Republican President Reagan while voting still was under way in California. Some of these reports were based on exit polling in California and other states. Some of the reports, in the 1984 election in particular, were based on actual votes cast in other states before the polls closed in California.

Such reports, the Democrats contend (a contention that is disputed by some studies), discouraged potential late-voting Californians from going to the polls. If the outcome was already decided, why bother? The answer is that many other state and local contests and issues still had to be decided, and the falloff in voting could affect the outcomes.

The frustration of the Democrats is understandable, but the attempt to keep exit pollsters away from the voters is not the solution. In an era of sophisticated computer counting of votes, the outcome in the rest of the country will be clear in most elections before California polls close--regardless of exit polls.

The answer, if one really is needed, may be to have a national uniform poll-closing time. Such a bill has been introduced in Congress, and it has the support of the national television networks.

In the meantime, Gov. George Deukmejian should veto the California bill. It would not cure the problem that troubles the sponsors. And if any voters don't want to be interviewed by pollsters, they can simply ignore them.

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