Keep TV out of the ballot box

An important new study of the 1980 presidential election appears to confirm what many persons had suspected all along. Namely, that the early TV projections of a landslide victory for Mr. Reagan may actually have caused millions of persons not to bother voting at all. What is worrisome is that other, closer, contests may have been directly influenced by such decisions not to vote.

The University of Michigan study was commissioned in part by ABC News. If the conclusions prove true - that TV coverage may have influenced the results of the election - then the broadcast industry, and perhaps Congress, would seem to have some genuine soul-searching to do to protect the confidence and integrity of the US electoral process. The underlying premise of that system, after all, is that every person's vote is supposed to have equal value.

Yet in the 1980 election a number of congressional contests in the West, where the polls close several hours after closing time in the East, were decided by a mere handful of votes. In one California district, a long-time incumbent, a Democrat, was turned out of office by 752 votes. In an Oregon contest, a nationally prominent incumbent, again a Democrat, lost by 3,765 votes. Might the outcome have been different if some of those Democrats who would have voted for Mr. Carter had gone to the polls, instead of staying at home after hearing projections about a Reagan landslide?

In 1980, of course, the ''projection factor,'' if one can call it that, worked in favor of Republicans.

But in another election the beneficiary might well be the Democrats, with Republicans staying away from the ballot box. The issue is, how should any possible abuse growing out of projections be eliminated, without at the same time impinging on free speech or legitimate news reporting?

Congress has a number of bills before it which, among other alternatives, would change the voting day to a weekend; require uniform national voting hours; make election day a national holiday. Such measures should be studied closely, since all these proposals contain as many pitfalls as solutions. But the first, and most important, step should be a careful examination of the Michigan findings by the TV broadcast industry. As one of our colleagues noted, TV news analysis of the Sadat assassination was far more restrained and cautious than the TV analysis the day of the assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan. One reason might well have been because of criticisms about that earlier coverage.

The TV news industry, thanks in part to technological and polling advances, can now literally ''know'' an outcome in some election contests long before the votes are formally tabulated. And there is little dispute that TV performs a national service with its generally excellent coverage of presidential elections. Now, in light of the Michigan study, broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that their technology, polling, and fine coverage do not in any sense compromise the integrity of the electoral process itself.

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