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Congress Pushes Uniform Poll-Closing for Presidential Election Years

April 23, 1989|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — There are times when Americans in large numbers turn their frustrations on Washington. One such occasion was last Monday, when income-tax returns were due. Another is on presidential election days.

Especially for Californians and others in the West, geographic isolation has been reinforced in the last decade by a new problem: Why vote for President when the major television networks, plus many politicians back East, have already decreed the winner?

In the three most recent presidential elections, the suspense was over hours before polls closed at 8 p.m. on the West Coast. The early end of the national election-night drama has had a twofold cause: First, news organizations have used elaborate polling outside of voting places to prepare, by midafternoon in the East, relatively accurate projections of the final outcome. This problem has been somewhat alleviated since television executives agreed, under bipartisan political pressure, not to release local projections until the polls closed in that state.

But the second conflict remains. Because voting is completed earlier in the East than in the West, broadcasters have used their projections and scanty actual returns to announce quickly who won some states while voting continued elsewhere. In 1988, for example, the networks announced at roughly 6 p.m. in California that George Bush had captured enough states to give him an election lock.

At that point, registered voters from San Diego to Seattle who wanted to affect the presidential contest might as well have stayed home. Many surely did not vote after deciding that it was not worth the effort.

Local politicians have complained that the lowered turnout by voters waiting until they left work that day has often spelled the difference between victory and defeat in other contests, usually to the detriment of Democrats. In 1980, for example, influential Democratic Rep. James C. Corman lost his San Fernando Valley seat to Republican Bobbi Fiedler by 752 votes. Friends of Corman blamed his loss on President Jimmy Carter's early concession to Ronald Reagan, which led many voters to flee lines at the voting booths.

This continuing problem, plus the abysmally low voter turnout in national elections, has prompted fresh efforts for a solution. Because most politicians realize that they cannot expect news organizations to suspend competition in the reporting of votes, they have moved in another direction: Close all the polls across the nation at the same moment in time. The House passed such a bill earlier this month and the Senate is expected to approve a similar version by summer.

Despite their appeal, uniform poll-closing proposals face continued opposition. Except for alleged voting discrimination, the federal government traditionally has not sought to regulate elections. In addition, local custom has led some states, especially in rural areas, to end voting as early as 6 p.m.

The most serious and inescapable dilemma arises from a combination of modern communications technology and the Earth's movement on its axis. Simply stated, to avoid the possibility that vote tallies will be announced before all voting is completed, polls must stay open three hours later local time in the East than in the West. That means that if Californians want to vote until 8 p.m., voting must continue in New York until 11 p.m.--a prospect that local officials and poll-watchers along the East Coast deem unacceptable.

Politicians cannot make time stand still but some believe that they have found the next-best solution. Perhaps the most novel proposal would, in presidential-election years, delay the end of daylight-saving time in the West until the Sunday after the election. The effect would be to narrow the voting gap from three hours to two, allowing Californians to vote until 7 p.m. and still finish at the same moment as New Yorkers voting until 9 p.m.

The proposal may be jury-rigged and would cause fits for the time-sensitive airline industry, but it has won support from a House majority. "It is the least intrusive solution that solves a serious problem in our electoral system," said Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), one of the leading proponents of the bill.

Still, not everyone in Congress is happy. "This proposal has the potential to do more to discourage voter participation," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a shrewd political strategist. "Changing daylight-saving time and closing an hour earlier than usual will be confusing, especially to a lot of working people." A better alternative, he suggested, would be for Eastern states to delay the announcement of their election results.

Waxman conceded that the First Amendment poses problems for requests that the media not report the news. And critics who call for limits on election-eve public-opinion polls are unlikely to find much support for regulating such activities.

Congress faces other legislative proposals that have been advanced to address election-law shortcomings or inequities. They include proposals to change the extended and often chaotic presidential-election calendar, limit the influence of special-interest political-action committees and require public disclosure of all campaign financing. On most of these sensitive issues, changes in government rules are virtually impossible without bipartisan agreement.

Procedural change comes slowly in the political world and the poll-closing proposal is not expected to have much impact on either Election Day operations or outcomes. But who knows? The law of unintended consequences has governed other changes in the nation's election laws. Perhaps different polling hours will produce different national election results.

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