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Next Nov. 8: Will TV Project the Winner?

November 08, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT

There was a time Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.) was prepared to conduct a national campaign to put an Election Day hurt on CBS, NBC and ABC if they didn't show some restraint with their speedy projections of winners and losers.

He would urge voters, he says only in partial jest, to refuse to answer questions by network exit pollsters, who on Election Day fan out across the nation to ask voters leaving the polls which candidates they voted for.

But Swift didn't have to commence the campaign in the 1986 congressional elections. He says the coming presidential elections seem to pose no potential projection problems, either.

This is because in January, 1985, all three networks voluntarily agreed not to use their voter exit polls in any state to project or "characterize" the outcome of elections there before the polls in that state closed.

The 1986 elections came and went without network incident, says Swift, chairman of a House subcommittee on elections: "They appeared to follow their new policies to the letter."

And, with a presidential election to be held a year from today (Nov. 8), "I think they will follow it to the letter again," he says.

But there's a difference. The 1986 election was made up of state-by-state contests, so there was no effect on California races, for instance, when projections were made about state elections in the East, where polls closed earlier due to the time difference.

Now, Swift is hoping Congress, for its part, will act before the coming presidential election to resolve the issue by approving pending legislation requiring a same-time closing of polls across the United States.

The measure, which the House last year approved 204-171 but which got no action by the Senate, is co-sponsored in the House by Swift and the vice-chairman of his subcommittee, Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield).

It was proposed as a result of the networks' voluntary agreement, Thomas said. Once the networks acted, "It was our job--as we had told them at the beginning--to try and make sure that all the polls close at the same time."

"So the networks, as far as Al and I are concerned, have done their job," he said.

Controversy over exit polls and projections based on them flared in 1980 when the three networks declared Ronald Reagan the winner of the presidency hours before polls closed in the West.

President Jimmy Carter also found himself the object of criticism because he conceded his loss before West Coast polls had closed, publicly accepting defeat, one scholar notes, even before one network projected it.

After Reagan's landslide 1984 victory and equally swift network projections of same, the issue arose again, with critics saying the fast calls had discouraged voters in Western states, possibly caused a drop in voting, and thus affected state and local races.

The networks reject this criticism, saying there is no hard evidence of such an impact. They've gotten support from William Adams, a George Washington University professor who studied the effect of network projections in the 1984 elections in Oregon, Idaho and Kansas.

"There's no evidence that it (network projections) had an effect in decreasing voter turnout," says Adams, whose research next year will be published as a book tentatively entitled "Calling It Early."

Thomas isn't as certain as Adams. But he says it's hard to be conclusive either way, even though "we've tried to get documented evidence" of a voting drop due to network projections.

"You hear all kinds of anecdotal statements made about people not voting, and there are ongoing studies which are beginning to generate some evidence, at least about peoples' attitudes towards voting," he said.

"But one of the difficulties has been a general lack of hard data. . . ."

In defending early projections of presidential winners, the networks point out that electoral votes of each state--not the popular vote--determine the outcome, and that in a landslide, the margin of victory can come well before polls in Western states are closed.

"That's a function of basic math," says Bob Seigenthaler, ABC News vice president for news standards. "I believe it's theoretically possible--if you carried every Eastern time-zone state--that you'd have enough electoral votes to be the President. . . .

"So there's no way for us to keep that a secret."

"That's right," says Swift, asserting that without a uniform poll-closing law and with the prospect of landslide victory, "you still have that possibility" of an early presidential projection.

"If one candidate takes virtually every state in the East Coast . . . he could end up with a majority of the electoral college before you got to the West Coast," he says. "That's why you need a uniform poll-closing bill.

"Because if we all close our polls at the same time, that can't happen."

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