Exit polls: less of an issue in US elections than public apathy

When the contemporary homespun philosopher Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra pronounced, ''It's not over until it's over,'' he likely did not take exit polls into consideration.

Yogi obviously knows from baseball, but not from precinct projections. It's the latter that now cause more furor than a close call at home. The issue of whether the news media may call the winners of US elections before official results are in may go to the Supreme Court. The main question: Which should take precedence - the guarantee of voter privacy and sanctity of the polling place, or the public's right to know?

Both arguments have merit. Ballot-casters have a right to pull levers on election day without having pollsters breathing down their necks. And it would seem fairer for voters to make their choices without knowledge of results elsewhere.

On the other hand, it is the role of the media to report the news. And any restraint, or legal ban on exit polling, might be an abridgment of the First Amendment.

Lawmakers, political figures, and others have suggested an array of compromises, ranging from a kind of ''gentleman's agreement'' on the part of the media to hold up results of exit polling until all voting places are closed, to synchronized voting across the nation on a ''time zone'' basis, to an outright ban on questioning of voters as they leave election areas.

A key issue: Should restraint be mandatory or voluntary? The White House objects to exit polls, but it doesn't advocate legislation to bar them. The House of Representatives recently passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the media not to project winners until polls across the nation have closed.

What is more likely to determine the issue, however, is litigation stemming from legislation in the state of Washington which bans exit polling. United States District Judge Jack Tanner, in recently upholding a 1983 state law that bars polling within 300 feet of where ballots are cast, said he wanted to ensure ''the peace, order, and decorum'' of the election process, even if that means infringing on the First Amendment right to gather news. The New York Times and the Everett (Wash.) Herald, as well as the ABC, NBC, and CBS television networks , disagree. They say this ruling is a basic infringement on news gathering. And they are concerned that, if the Washington law is allowed to stand on appeal, it will encourage other states to take similar action.

The exit polling issue heated up in the wake of the 1980 election, when network projections declared Ronald Reagan the winner while West Coast voting places were still open. The matter has since been the subject of much debate. And, although there are no definitive studies indicating that knowledge of results elsewhere discourages voters from casting ballots, there seems to be a consensus that this happens.

What should be done? Regardless of the outcome of litigation, some media self-restraint is in order. It's the role of the press to report elections, not influence their outcome. And the responsibility to provide a free flow of information must be balanced with a responsibility to promote good citizenship.

However, US elections are decided as much by those who don't go to the polls as by those who do. In 1980, only 54 percent of those eligible to cast ballots did so. By comparison, in the last British election nearly 75 percent of the qualified voters cast ballots. Turnouts in France and West Germany usually top 80 percent. This fall about 174 million Americans will be eligible to vote. Both parties are working to get at least 100 million to the polls - a significant achievement.

Let's face it: Apathy and lack of public responsibility are much greater hindrances to participation in a free society than exit polling. Let's vote them out - and other things will tend to balance themselves off.

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