Exit polls, stage left

Once the United States has a new president, reform of the electoral system must begin in earnest. But one unofficial cog in the election machinery also needs fixing.

On Nov. 7, a "gentleman's agreement" among the TV networks not to call the winner in any state before voting ended in that state was violated. ABC, Fox News, and the Associated Press have since said they will no longer do that. And NBC says it will support a bill that would create a national poll-closing time.

But the biggest problem on election night was the media's use of exit polling.

These surveys of actual voters are designed to give the media a few hours jump on the official vote count. In almost every election, vote tallies are done by 11 p.m. local time. But the media want to use exit polls to broadcast the projected winners during prime time.

The election-night miscalls in Florida by the media show it's better to get the vote count right, not just first.

Americans have ample patience for the final result, as the month-long court drama in Florida confirms.

And the big increases in absentee ballots in recent elections only put exit polling at further risk of being wrong.

Fox News and NBC are rethinking their affiliation with Voter News Service (VNS), the media consortium that now provides exit-polling information - or, sometimes, misinformation - on election night. Even assuming VNS's egregious mistakes in Florida can be corrected, the fact that major television networks have relied on a single organization to provide key information in elections of global importance is unwise.

At the very least, more than one VNS-type service would help provide needed competition and greater accuracy.

Post-voting interviews by VNS are most useful in understanding the nuances of who voted and why, but not to call an election result prematurely.

That information, as well as anticipation of the ultimate winner, should provide enough suspense to keep people watching TV every election night.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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