Psst! Hey lady, before you vote, wanna know who won the election?
“No, I do NOT want to know!” Jacqueline Arlow said emphatically. It was 6:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, and Arlow, just getting out of work, was walking up to her polling place.
Thirty minutes earlier, the national TV networks had announced the election was a done deal. Based on their exit polling, they said, President Clinton had won re-election.
Arlow, standing in a cold drizzle, said she wished the networks had held their tongues.
“There are a lot of people who haven’t voted yet,” she said. “There are a lot of races out here that haven’t been decided.”
She’s not the only upset Westerner. Voters, election officials, politicians and academics worry that the networks’ early projections of the presidential race can change local races by making voters say “Why bother?” Political scientist David Olson of the University of Washington was disappointed but not surprised by the networks’ early call.
“It’s East Coast media imperialism that consigns people in the West to a secondary and inferior status,” he said.
He and others point to 1980, when President Carter conceded the election at 8:10 EST almost three hours before polls closed in California, Oregon and Washington.
Mina Bowker, a poll worker in Olympia, said she remembers it well.
“A gentleman came in to the polling site and said Carter conceded the election,” Bowker said. “People said, ‘What’s the use of me voting?’ and they left. It wasn’t just one or two. It was close to a dozen.”
The issue comes up every four years, but the TV networks have resisted urgings from Congress, election officials, party leaders and academics to delay their projections.
Because presidents are chosen by the Electoral College, victory is assured once a candidate wins a majority in enough states to capture 270 electoral votes. Network executives say they would be irresponsible not to report exit-poll results that indicate a candidate has reached that point.
“We’re not going to insult people’s intelligence,” Andrew Heyward, CBS News president, said last week. “When it’s 270, it’s 270.”
Tuesday night, all the networks announced that milestone at either 9:00 or 9:01 p.m. EST.
Before and after the projection, news anchors repeatedly urged people on the West Coast to vote. Olson said that just shows they know they’re in the wrong.
“They recognize their contamination of the electoral process, and they’re trying to compensate for it,” he said.
The networks also claim that no studies show voter turnout is affected by their projections. Olson said that’s beside the point.
“The question to ask is whether or not the integrity of the voting process is being honored,” he said, “and the answer to that is a resounding no.”
Not everybody was complaining. Some election officials said they were confident local races would keep voters coming. Oregon has 23 ballot propositions, for example, and California has 15.
And in the even more time-zone-impaired state of Alaska, four hours behind the East Coast, Republican party leaders said early projections of Clinton’s victory might have had an opposite effect, spurring more voters to the polls.
“We tend to be a fairly feisty crew up here and people quite often like to prove the pundits wrong,” said Pete Hallgren, the state Republican Party chairman in Sitka. “That can often stir up people to go out and vote.”