ELECTION DAY 1980. At 8:14 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, just under three hours before the polls closed in California, NBC News announced that, based on exit polling. Ronald Reagan would be the next president. Meanwhile, California Democratic congressman James C. Corman was hanging onto a slim lead in his reelection bid. By the end of the night, however, Corman had lost his seat by only 752 votes out of the 150,000 cast.
Though speed was the object, the networks did not gauge the possible effects of the early announcements. As it happened, many people in the Pacific time zone--including Corman's constituents--whose polls were still open decided not to vote, feeling their ballot was useless. This did not affect the presidential race, which was decided east of the Mississippi. But in smaller congressional, state, and local races--particularly Corman's--Democratic candidates lost votes when despairing Carter supporters chose not to cast their ballots.
Three weeks ago in Massachusetts, Channel Seven anchorman Tom Ellis began the six o'clock news, two hours before the polls closed, with the announcement that he knew who had won the race to be the Democratic candidate for governor but said he would not disclose the victor.
Ellis was not playing a vicious cat and mouse game with the audience, baiting them to watch further, nor was he bluffing while awaiting more definite results. Rather, Ellis was being a responsible newsman who understood the power of television in covering elections. Channel Seven feared it could influence several local races if it announced a projection based on exit polls before all the ballots had been cast. It is that kind of restraint which the rest of the media must voluntarily adopt if they are not to have a debilitating effect on the electoral process in the future. Television has become too smart for the country's own good.
Pollsters have the power to peg a winner before a large part of the electorate has voted. If this information is broadest, studies have shown that supporters of the projected loser will not turn out, hurting those on the ticket whose races have not yet been decided. Ostensibly, had Carter's fate not been prematurely broadcast on national television, more Democrats would have decided to vote between six and eight o'clock Pacific time, probably returning Corman to his seat. But instead, NBC went public and Bobbi Fiedler is now the representative for California's 21st Congressional District.
This problem will not go away and, in fact, will only get worse as polling becomes more accurate and quicker projections can be made. On the horizon is the instant-response Qube cable system which would allow immediate living room surveys of constituents via their TV sets.
THE SOLUTION seems obvious: prevent stations from broadcasting exit polling results until all election booths are closed. However, that runs counter to the principle of free speech that is mentioned on the same document as free elections. Therefore, a compromise has to be struck. The networks should pledge to keep their results private until all polls have closed. This would not be mandated by law, but would be complied with voluntarily by the media. Such a concept is not unique. The President's State of the Union Message, for example, is routinely distributed to the press prior to the President's appearance before Congress with the assurance that the contents will not be made public until after the speech. Similar voluntary restrictions should apply to airing exit poll results. No one station would be given an advantage and the elective process would run its natural course.
The only way this voluntary standard will be implemented throughout the nation is if the government can get national media organizations to adopt uniformly the standards. If Channel Seven is to be the exception and not the rule, then there will be no incentive for Tom Ellis to continue withholding the results. Earlier and earlier projections will ensue and the outcome of many elections will be unfairly decided without many would-be voters.
A joint House of Representatives committee held hearings on this question two weeks ago but came up with few suggestions. The problem was recognized, but no plan of action proscribed. Meanwhile, Carol Randolph of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) anticipates no action by the NAB to organize a nationwide standard. Congress, however, is now considering a bill that calls for a uniform poll closing time across the country. If polls were shut at 10 p.m. EST in New York, they would close at 7 p.m. PST in California.
But prospects for the legislation's passage seem bleak. Yet something does have to be done. It is up to concerned legislators and responsible news people to call for these nationwide standards. By forcing each individual media outlet to make its own choice, the government and media organizations are avoiding their responsibility to insure fair elections. Unfortunately, most pressure on the broadcasting industry likely comes from defeated politicians complaining about television's undue influence on their races--and in Washington, defeated politicians do not carry much clout.