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Media Mull Their Rush to Judgment

Elections: Outlets will declare winners as early as possible, even if parts of the country still are voting. Strategists are split on the effect on outcomes of races.


Major media outlets and upstart Internet companies will declare a winner in the cliffhanger presidential race at the earliest possible moment Tuesday, even if parts of the country still are voting.

Particularly on the West Coast, where control of the House could be determined by a few congressional races, some senior elected officials worry that the early projections could dampen voter turnout and tip the outcome of close, down-ticket races.

"When you project a winner . . . it is nothing other than a guess," said California's top election official, Secretary of State Bill Jones. "How many times on Tuesday night are we going to have [television networks] going back and forth?" the Republican asked.

But for the candidates with the most at stake, many say their races are so competitive that they do not believe an early result in the White House race will affect their chances.

Rep. Steven T. Kuykendall, a Republican battling to hang on to his South Bay seat, "has been able to win in these very tough elections despite the poor performance at the top of the ticket," his spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said. Even if TV anchors call the national election, "we're still going to be getting our voters to the polls."

California May Clinch the Deal

Other strategists, noting the unusually large number of key states that remain up for grabs, downplay the likelihood that a clear winner will emerge before California voters have cast their ballots.

"That's not going to happen this time," said Erik Smith, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "This [presidential] race is tighter than two coats of paint."

The nation's largest news organizations--the big four television networks and the Associated Press, as well as some Internet outlets--subscribe to Voter News Service, which interviews voters nationwide as they leave polling booths. VNS tallies the data and provides its subscribers with a historically accurate prediction of the winners beginning at 1 p.m. EDT election day.

As part of their arrangement with VNS, the subscribers agree to keep the results of the surveys secret until the "vast majority" of a state's polls have closed. That ensures that no subscriber has a competitive edge in covering the results and limits the likelihood that a projection could reduce turnout.

In 1980, the networks declared Ronald Reagan the winner while much of the country still was voting. Former President Carter conceded the race while California's polls still were open.

California election officials say the early declaration disheartened voters, reducing turnout by 2%. Former Rep. James Corman blamed his loss by 752 votes that year on Democratic voters staying home.

Still, television anchors have declared a winner before 11 p.m. EDT--when California polls close--in every election since. Network executives dismiss the idea that early projections of the presidential race cut into West Coast turnout.

"I think that's one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't issues," said Marty Ryan, executive producer of political coverage for Fox News Channel. "I don't think a news organization should ever be in the business of withholding news. I think, as long as the polls are closed . . . it's very difficult for us not to call [the race]. I just think that we're kind of stuck."

Other television journalists agreed.

"We carefully call the races, project the races as we can," said Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News. "Unfortunately . . . that might create a situation where we've declared a presidential winner before every state's polls have closed. The alternative is to know who the president is and not tell the country."

But the rise of online news sites has created a rift among journalists, with some warning that release of early projections will lower voter turnout in Midwest battlegrounds and others saying the news embargo is pointless.

"If the election has been decided, then it has been decided," said Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate. "If you decide you're not going to vote because the election has been decided, that's your right. If you think [the exit polls] could be wrong, then you will vote."

VNS threatened legal action after Slate posted exit survey results in midafternoon during the primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan. Kinsley protested that the site wasn't required to withhold the information because it wasn't a subscriber, but Slate ultimately agreed not to post such data in the future.

Tightening Access to Data

VNS also has begun sending out legal warnings to other news organizations this week saying that early release of the data could constitute "unfair competition" and prompt litigation.

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