Congressmen, Voters Object to Early Projection of Winners

FREEDOM of the press versus the freedom to vote without undue media influence.

This is the essence of the quadrennial debate over the prediction of winners before all the polls have closed.

Ever since Jimmy Carter conceded defeat early on election night 1980 and many people in the West walked away from their place in the voting line, pressure has been on television networks to stop their early projections of winners. Many state and local races had very close outcomes that year and in subsequent years.

In 1988 results might have been different in some cases, Western election officials believe, if Dan Rather of CBS hadn't declared George Bush the winner at 6:17 p.m. West Coast time.

"Because of election-night projections, millions of Americans feel their vote doesn't count," complains Rep. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, a leader in the movement to stop TV projections.

Network officials say if there's a problem (which they don't concede), then it's up to Congress to pass a law declaring a universal voting time. In any case, they say, if it can be shown that a presidential candidate has won the necessary 270 electoral votes in Eastern and Central time zones (where some three-quarters of all voters live), then that is news that ought not to be supressed.

In a letter to Representative Wyden, NBC president Robert Wright said even a request by government officials "to withhold news from the American people ... is an improper interference with [the] freedom to make editorial decisions."

On the other side of the debate are 154 members of Congress (more than a third of the US House of Representatives, including the entire delegations of eight Western states) who complained to the major networks recently; the secretaries of state of California, Oregon, and Washington; both Republican and Democratic national parties; and 77 percent of registered voters in a recent national survey - including the same majority in the East, Midwest, and South.

Leading this effort has been the private Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which recently took out newspaper advertisements around the country urging people to contact the networks in protest.

"Such projections serve no useful purpose," says Curtis Gans, director of the organization.

In addition to the impact on voter turnout and local elections, Mr. Gans cites several arguments here:

* Networks are happy to withhold results of sporting events when those events have been recorded for broadcast after the fact and it is in their financial interest to do so.

* Since networks now all use the same exit polls, competition is no longer an issue.

* TV announcers did delay announcing projected results in Canadian elections until after the polls closed there.

The major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN) have pledged not to characterize or project the election results in any state until polls have closed in that state.

In a letter to House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, CBS News president Eric Ober added that "at appropriate times during our election night coverage, our viewers will be reminded that polls in their area may still be open, that there are a number of offices at stake, and that it is important for them to cast their vote."

Four CBS affiliates (Sacramento and Fresno, Calif., Portland and Eugene, Ore.) announced last week they would not broadcast their network's national projections before polls are closed on the West Coast.

Both George Bush and Bill Clinton have promised Representative Wyden they will not declare victory or concede defeat until all the polls are closed around the country.

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