US Watches Canada's Staggered Voting

Similar closing times allow Westerners to vote without knowing early returns

To avoid the problem of people in Western provinces not voting after hearing initial election results, Canada for the first time last week tried something new: staggered polling hours.

For the June 2 national election, voters across Canada's six time zones ended their balloting at about the same local time.

For Allan Tupper, a resident of Edmonton, Alberta, the federal election was the first in memory in which he stepped into a polling booth not knowing which party had won a majority in Parliament.

Before, in a typical election year, western Canadians like Professor Tupper, a University of Edmonton political scientist, would likely know which party had won hours before Alberta polls had even closed. "This was a long-standing concern," he says. "People often would not vote because of it. It was just the psychological impact."

Western US faces same issue

But would a similar system work in the United States, which has a similar problem? Voters in the Western states often find out the results of early exit polls of presidential election winners by broadcast news media.

"It has not been an issue that has grabbed the nation's attention, but it is a big issue for us," says Gary McIntosh, Washington State's director of elections in Spokane. "We've repeatedly had the problem of having election results known here around 4-5 p.m., and it's definitely hurt our voter turnout." Brian Hancock, an election research specialist at the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in Washington D.C., agrees that "there certainly is a problem."

While it is difficult to measure a precise effect, he says, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the media's reporting of exit-poll results adversely affects people on the West Coast.

"A lot of people feel pretty strongly that it has a depressing effect on voter turnout," he says. "Hawaii is another two hours west, and Alaska is an extra hour, so those states have an additional burden."

In many elections, it is difficult to discern whether early reporting of results has any negative effect on voter turnout. But it can be noticeable during "landslide" elections, says Richard Smolka, who publishes Election Administration Report in Washington D.C., a newsletter that goes out to election administrators worldwide.

Momentum for a change in the US system followed the big victory by George Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988. In 1990, the US House of Representatives passed a "uniform poll closing time" bill, Mr. Hancock of the FEC says. But it failed when House and Senate versions could not be reconciled.

Whether or not Canada's change will raise or at least help prop up declining voter turnout is not yet clear. Overall voter turnout across Canada was unofficially about 62 percent, compared with 69.6 percent in 1993. In the US, voter turnout is often 50 percent or less.

Worth considering

In Oregon, Kappy Eaton thinks a system similar to the one just introduced in Canada would make sense. An official of the Oregon chapter of the League of Women Voters, she says the US should evaluate and probably adopt the Canadian approach.

Even though Oregon has a pretty good turnout (about 70 percent) relative to the US average, she believes it would be helped if polls closed at the same time, preventing early reporting of results. "We're having the same problem here that they used to have up in Canada," she says. "I think it's worth reconsidering. We certainly resent [the practice] of predicting winners when many of our people haven't even voted."

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