Back off a bit on polls

IOWA is a big story, and CBS and ABC can hardly be faulted for wanting to do a thorough job of covering it. But the networks' entrance polls - designed to get some idea of who won before the caucuses were over - could put a bit more flame under the average citizen's simmering suspicion that journalists are a little too eager to know how he votes. Another network practice, polling of voters just after they've cast their ballots, called exit polling, was validated last week. A federal appeals court ruled that a Washington State law banning exit polling violated free speech.

The difficulty has never really been polling per se, exit or entrance. It's the timing of electoral forecasts. Using early voting returns alone, news people have long had the ability to project a winner before all ballots were cast - especially when a contest was lopsided. Exit polls have extended that reach. They've also told us valuable things about how the various subsets in the American electorate - by age, income, religion, union affiliation, and so on - cast their ballots. To their credit, the TV networks have agreed not to project electoral winners in a state until that state's polls have closed.

That still leaves the problem of disgruntled West Coast voters. In the last two presidential elections, results were broadcast before many people west of the Mississippi had even headed out to vote. So did they stay home, ignoring state and local races?

Not really. Researchers found that only a tiny fraction of voters stayed away from the polls because network anchors had proclaimed a winner.

Research, however, probably won't erase suspicions that early projections distort the electoral process. And if there is anything we don't need in an era of lagging turnout, it's something that adds to excuses for not going to the polls.

So are there any solutions?

Uniform poll closing. The House of Representatives last year passed a bill to accomplish this in the ``Lower 48'' states - thus making it impossible for electoral projections in one region to affect voting in another. This sounds good, but the tangles involved in trying to make the various time zones jibe could be dizzying. Nonetheless, the Senate should move promptly to schedule hearings on the bill.

Voluntary restraints on broadcasters. Cable News Network won't forecast a national winner until polls have closed on the West Coast. CNN also rejects the use of exit polls. But it's doubtful that ABC, CBS, and NBC will follow that lead.

Extending the election over two days. Broadcasters might still make projections, but the number of voters potentially affected would be much smaller because of the spread-out voting period. It might also boost turnout - as well as the chances of voting fraud. Still, this idea, like the others, warrants a hard look.

Of the immediate options, the best course is voluntary network restraint in disclosing its bottom-line result - who won. This would preserve public support for the really important survey findings - who voted for him or her, and why.

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