Should TV networks be gagged on vote projections?

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Like tremors along the San Andreas Fault, lingering rumbles from the 1980 presidential election are being heard from the West, aftershocks that could be felt as far off as 1984.

Congress is investigating complaints that early network projections of a Reagan win may have cause many not to vote and thus affected other elections. Intriguing suggestions -- involving constitutional questions as well as longstanding political practice -- are being offered, some of which have gotten initial endorsement from the country's three ex-presidents.

Using such sophisticated quick-study methods as "key precencts" and "exit polls," the three major networks last year raced to announce projected results of the presidential race, one coming nearly three hours before the polls closed in the Western states.

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County officials in Los Angeles joined California Secretary of State March Fong Eu in reporting noticeable voter drop-off in the last few hours of polling. When questioned by the Field Institute, 10 percent of those who failed to vote in California said they did so because of the early network projections. If substantiated by more thorough studies now under way, this could translate into more than 400,000 voters in the state turned off by the television scramble to be first with the results.

"The race to project victories may increase network ratings, but it may also have serious and harmful effects on voter confidence in the integrity of the election system and in the value of an individual vote," League of Women Voters president Ruth J. Hinerfeld told the Senate Rules Committee last week.

Many local elections in the West were determined by a few votes.Former congressmen James Corman of California and Al Ullman of Oregon complain that late voter drop-off may have caused their defeats.

For their part, top network executives disclaim responsibility for anything but reporting the news as they see it.

"Broadcast projections have never been demonstrated to have any measurable effect on either voter turnout or voter choice," said William J. Small, president of NBC News. "The reasons people vote or fail to vote are many and complex. It would be wrong and simplistic to conclude that this decision hinges significantly on the words of television news commentators."

Mr. Small's testimony was echoed by executives for ABC, CBS, the Cable News Network, and the National Association of Broadcasters. The television officials also warned that any attempts to prevent reporting or commentary would violate constitutional rights of expression and a free press.

Jimmy Carter's early concession may have stopped more people from voting than did network projections, say some analysts. Others assert that the projections themselves may have helped influence Carter to quit early.

All of this should become clearer when an examination of why so many people failed to vote is completed by the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies this summer. Network projections may well have had some impact, but it probably was relatively small, according to those familiar with this study's early data.

In any case, Congress is considering several proposals offered by Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California and others.

Some bills would embargo vote tallies as well as "any information with respect to the number of votes cast at a presidential general election" until all polls in the country have closed. This potential shadow over projecting results is thought to be constitutionally questionable, even by network critics as the California secretary of state.

Another Hayakawa bill would change election day to Sunday with all polls staying open from noon until 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Rep. Mario Biaggin (D) of New York (author of a companion bill in the House of Representatives) points out that countries where voting is on Sunday have a much higher turnout than the United States: 90 percent in Sweden, 89 percent in Austria and West Germany, 81 percent in France, 74 percent in Japan, compared with only 54 percent in the last US election.

Mr. Biaggi's proposal has received the tentative endorsement of former presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, all of whom, it should be noted, lost a presidential election.

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