Voters: the time-zone fallout

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It's a pity Americans don't lift up their eyes oftener to Canada. They would learn a lot of things. For example, there is commotion now in United States political circles because on Nov. 4 the radio-TV media disclosed the Reagan landslide in the East before the far West closed its polls. "Why bother to vote?" a lot of Californians are supposed to have said. Queues of waiting voters in some areas reportedly melted. Television networks, led by NBC, forecast the national election result at 5:15 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. President Carter conceded at 6:15. Not only voters but precinct workers on the West Coast quit and went home, according to irritated Democrats.

Here's an example: Rep. Al Ullman (D) of Oregon, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, won't be back to Congress next year. He was in a neck-and-neck race with his Republican adversary, Denny Smith. He lost by 1 percentage point. He blames it on time-zone effect. And think of Rep. James Corman (D) of California -- he lost by 900 votes. He, too, believes he was a time-zone fallout.Why can't something be done about it, Washington asks.

Something has been done about it in Canada. For some years Canada has forbidden broadcasts about the election results of eastern time zones into western time zones until the latter's polls have closed. Here's how an official study describes it (reference paper 109, revised, April 1978):

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"Partisan radio and TV broadcasts as well as advertising in periodical publications are prohibited from the day of the issue of the writs (i.e., announcement of election) to the 29th day before polling day, as well as on the polling day, and on the day immediately preceding polling day.

"Owing to time-zone differences, election results in eastern Canada are known before voting ends in the west.

"Federal law therefore prohibits the publication or broadcasts in any area, before polls close in that area, of the result of voting in any electoral district in Canada.

"This is intended to prevent late-voting westerners from being influenced by the results already made public in the East."

It's as simple as that. Such a rule might have boosted the number of US voters in California and Oregon this month and perhaps changed a number of results in a situation compounded by President Carter's unnecessarily early concession of defeat. It was an untoward precedent that ignored time zones and probably hurt his own supporters. Michael Gagan, chief assistant to the California secretary of state, says that during the day polls were operating at 82 percent voter turnout, but they wound up at the end with only 76 percent: "That meant a 4 to 6 percent drop in the last two hours when an awful lot of people vote." Mr. Gagan estimates 450,000 votes weren't cast as a result of time-zone interference and presidential action.

Something ought to be done. I would guess something will be done. A dozen proposals are heard. Rep. Mario Biaggi (D) of New York would follow European practice of voting on Sunday, and then stagger hours so that polls everywhere would close at about the same time. Hawaiians might object, but polls open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. would be at least tolerable. Under the plan the East would vote from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., the Pacific Coast 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

That's one idea. Another is to adopt Canada's system. A squawk would go up from the US radio-TV media. Sometimes it seems that elections are held for their benefit. Whether Congress has the audacity to control the news media as Ottawa does I don't know.

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