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Bill to Set a Uniform Time to Close Polls Clears House

November 11, 1987|KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House, on a 208-189 vote, approved legislation Tuesday that would set a uniform time under which all polls in the continental United States would close simultaneously on presidental election days.

The bill, which was backed primarily by lawmakers from Western states, seeks to prevent a repeat of the 1980 election, in which television networks projected President Reagan the winner during what was afternoon on the Pacific Coast, before many Westerners had had a chance to vote.

Some have claimed that this discouraged Western voters from going to the polls and may have influenced the vote margin of the election, as well as the results of local and state contests.

The bill would require all polls in the continental United States to close at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Daylight savings time would be extended by two weeks in the Pacific time zone only, which means that its polls would close at 7 p.m.

Similar Bill Died

An almost identical bill passed the House in January, 1986, only to die when the Senate failed to act. It again faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. The Reagan Administration has raised no objections to the measure.

Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), the bill's leading GOP supporter, claimed that the measure is a "minimalist solution" to assure that "technology will not overrun our ability to exercise our right to vote in this country."

Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), its primary Democratic backer, said it would guarantee Westerners "the right to vote before we are told it is all over."

But Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) describes the bill as "utterly ridiculous." He said that no reliable evidence has indicated that large numbers of people failed to vote because they knew the outcome of the 1980 election.

Noting that Alaska and Hawaii's polls would remain open after the uniform closing time, he added that the bill implies that "somehow Washington and California are corrupted (when East Coast polls close earlier than theirs), but Alaska and Hawaii are not."

Transportation Schedules

He also said that extending daylight-savings time for a brief period in the West would wreak havoc on scheduling for airlines, trains, buses and the securities industry.

Not all Western lawmakers supported the measure. Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) said it amounted to "reform without reason," and intruded in an area where states should be allowed to make their own rules.

The issue has been a concern since the mid-1960s, when the National Governors Assn. complained that voting procedures "are a throwback to the days when it took hours and even days to get to the polling booth" and when the results were not available on election night.

In the 1980s, the problem has become more complicated as sophisticated computers have made it possible for television networks to project results on the basis of interviews they conduct with voters leaving the polls.

Networks, fearing moves by the government, agreed in 1985 not to use data from these exit polls until polls have closed in the state where the interviews were conducted.

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