All three television networks have agreed not to use election exit polls to predict the winner in any state contest before the polls in that state close, thus opening the way for Congress to consider legislation on uniform poll closings, two congressmen said Thursday.
But critics noted that the agreement does not cover presidential elections and thus does not address the problem of discouraging voters in the West and Midwest by projecting a presidential winner before all of the nation's polls close.
Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Task Force on Elections, said at a news conference that the networks' pledges are "a subtle but important extension of existing policy."
Swift and California Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) said the pledges were needed so that, if legislation setting up a common poll closing time in all states is passed, Congress could be assured that the networks would not "short-circuit" the law by continuing to predict election results based on exit polls.
The pledges, made in recent letters from CBS, NBC and ABC to the two congressmen, take effect immediately.
The issue of projecting the outcome of national elections surfaced in 1980, when the three networks declared Ronald Reagan the winner of the presidency hours before polls closed across much of the country. The issue arose again last November, when several candidates in California complained that they had lost state races because discouraged voters stayed home after Reagan's landslide reelection was projected by 5:30 p.m. PST, 2 1/2 hours before the polls closed.
Congressional hearings are expected soon on proposals to make poll closing times uniform, the lawmakers said. For example, they said, polls could close two hours later on the East Coast, at 10 p.m. EST, and shut simultaneously on the West Coast at 7 p.m. PST, one hour earlier than they do now.
They said other proposals call for 24-hour voting and voting on Sundays. Swift said he believes that any proposal for uniform poll closings would have about a "50-50" chance of passage.
Critics have said that the networks should voluntarily agree not to project the winner of the presidential election until 8 p.m. PST.