Remember, we've got the secret ballot

WITH the fall elections at hand, we're again hearing lots of complaints about the news media's misuse of opinion polls. But why isn't anyone doing anything about it? There's no excuse for inaction. All we need do is exercise our fundamental but woefully neglected right to the secret ballot. All we need do is realize it makes no sense to slip behind a curtain to vote in secret and then dash outside and blab to a pollster -- or to tell all even before we get behind the curtain. All we need do is keep our mouths shut.

That, to be sure, would be that for exit polls, and for their use by broadcasters to declare election winners and thus discourage citizens who have yet to cast their ballots.

That would be the end, too, of campaign coverage by the media which stresses polls and who's winning or losing them rather than stressing the issues.

That would be the end of smug postelection coverage stressing whether we did or did not perform as predicted by polls and so acted ``as expected'' or, of course, participated in an ``upset.''

Westerners, certainly, would be spared the frustrations visited upon them in the past two presidential elections by the electronic media. The broadcasting networks, of course, used exit polls taken in the Eastern time zone to project Ronald Reagan as the sure winner long before Western polls had closed.

Those who claim an interest in turning out more voters have nevertheless not seized on the obvious remedy of restoring the once hallowed tradition of secrecy in voting.

That would apparently be too inconvenient for the media. The would-be reformers would instead inconvenience voters. They have proposed, in legislation that has been pending in Congress for several years, that the voting places in the 48 contiguous states close simultaneously at 9 p.m. Eastern time in presidential elections.

Western states would remain on daylight saving time for two weeks longer than usual in the years of those elections -- a prospect not much favored by farmers, among many others, and one that would still require Western polls to close at 7 p.m. local time. So unless they began voting at the unlikely hour of 5 a.m., rather than the customary 7 a.m., Westerners would have two hours less voting time than Easterners.

That and other supposed reforms proposed in Congress involve ``a transformation of the political system for the convenience of the networks,'' notes Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Mr. Gans, whose research group has looked very closely at exit polling, suggests that network restraint would be the only sensible remedy. But that, broadcasters protest, would interfere with the public's ``right to know.'' That sacred right, they say, requires that the networks air quick-as-possible projections of election winners, whatever the consequences.

As Richard Salant, a former president of CBS News, explained to a congressional committee, the networks' overriding concern is the journalist's obligation to report ``what she or he knows when she or he knows it.'' Tom Pettit, vice-president of NBC News, put it this way: ``When we have the facts, we cannot conceal them.''

Balderdash. The broadcasters commonly delay transmission of journalistic information, on election night as at any other time, to present commercial messages and entertainment programs.

And that ``right to know'' they prattle about -- the right to know what? The networks are merely reporting what they think will happen before it actually happens.

The real benefits go to the media. Their main purpose, don't forget, is to make as much profit as possible.

It doesn't disturb the media that they have turned elections into contests between pollsters vying to be the first to tell us who's winning and losing in the real contests between candidates.

But it should disturb the rest of us, disturb us so greatly that the next time someone dares ask how we're going to vote, or how we've voted, we will say it -- and say it loud:

``None of your business!''

Dick Meister, a San Francisco author, has reported on and voted in elections for a quarter-century. But never has he spoken, except rudely, to a pollster.

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