Altering Voting Times, Fairly

Some members of Congress want a uniform time for polls to be open during presidential elections. That's only fair, they say, for voters in the West, who might be influenced in their voting by early returns from the East.

A bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana and Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts proposes a 9 p.m. EST closing across the country. But instead of polls in California closing three hours earlier (at 6 p.m), the bill asks states in the Pacific time zone to extend daylight savings time by two weeks in presidential-election years so polls in that time zone would close at 7 p.m. (The bill also gives permission to Alaska and Hawaii to open their polls a day earlier to accommodate their time differences.) Those are significant changes involving lifestyle and business consequences.

Polls in the far West stand to lose an hour, and perhaps some votes. Studies show lower-income and minority voters (predominantly Democratic) tend to vote later in the day. The move also could raise "equal access" issues, with some folks likely to get a lot more time to go vote than others.

The idea also does virtually nothing to prevent the vote-counting problems that occurred last November. Nor does it keep news outlets from reporting results based on exit polls. In fact, the networks benefit: They could air one-hour election specials at 10 p.m. EST and preserve their valuable prime-time revenue streams.

Another idea - stretching voting out over a weekend (polls would open Friday night and close Sunday afternoon, for example) - warrants serious study. Such a move would help accommodate lifestyle changes (more working parents) and give people more flexibility in getting to the polls. Long lines would be reduced. TV networks would be more likely to refrain from exit polling, since early "returns" from such polls would, in this scenario, be less reliable.

In fact, if the networks would simply commit to reporting only the tabulated results, they would never prematurely call an election and thus never get it wrong. The prolonged election in Florida illustrated, at the least, a public more willing to wait than the networks perhaps believe.

In recent testimony on Capitol Hill, the president of ABC News speculated about a time when the nation would have "a system of voting that is so reliable and so instantaneous that the networks could simply report the actual results rather than analyze exit polls." Until then, Congress ought to consider a range of alternatives and not just focus on a uniform poll closing time that would inconvenience millions of average Americans.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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