Voting Troubles When the West Comes in Last

Dirk Olin, a former congressional correspondent, is a free-lance writer.

Each presidential Election Day, when the sun strikes Manhattan three hours before Los Angeles, East Coast voters rise to get a jump on the western electorate. This is natural enough but technology has now bypassed geography. Our 3,000-mile-wide country lives with computerized news systems that click much faster than the Earth spins. That is a problem when the body politic would prefer that its west hand not know what its east hand is doing.

Western congressmen, lead by Reps. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) and Al Swift (D-Wash.), propose a law that would conclude all presidential election-year balloting at the same time across the country. The idea is to avert a repetition of 1980, when President Jimmy Carter conceded to Ronald Reagan more than an hour before polls closed in the West.

Proponents of the poll-closing bill claim that Carter's concession discouraged many voters from casting their ballots. They further argue that the lower turnout may have affected some local races, citing stories from Portland, Ore., where incumbent House Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman had been defeated in a tight contest. Some supporters claimed that Ullman lost because disgruntled Democrats turned away from the polls in reaction to Carter's defeat.

The issue roiled again in 1984, when all three networks used exit polls and early returns from the East to predict Ronald Reagan's reelection by 5:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. While most experts conceded that the result had been a given, some still worried about the local effects of trickle-down voter discouragement.

Under the new bill, identical to a House-passed measure that floundered in the 1986 Senate, all polls east of the Pacific Time Zone would close at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The West would simultaneously shut down--but with its daylight saving time extended to the Sunday after elections, thus narrowing the coastal time gap to two hours.

Prodded by Congress, the major networks have already promised to cooperate by "voluntarily restraining" their use of voter surveys from a given state until after the polls are closed in that state. With uniform national closings, this would supposedly remove the problem of some Western voters being discouraged by premature results from the East.

Berating the bearer of bad tidings is a time-honored tradition, but now the messenger may be beaten simply for being too swift. If they are to justify pressuring the media, as well as changing the laws of time and balloting, reformers should satisfy two tests. First: Prove a problem really exists. Second: Prove the solution will do more good than harm. In this case, they can do neither.

It is far from certain that a significant number of voters are truly discouraged by early projections. Prof. William C. Adams of George Washington University was skeptical of the Portland stories in 1980. So he "returned to the scene of the alleged crime" to analyze turnout in a similarly tight 1984 contest at a neighboring district. Adams' election-night survey of 1,256 voters found little support for the idea that early projections of a Reagan victory kept voters home; of 639 eligible registered voters who did not go to the polls, fewer than 3% cited network verdicts as the reason.

Adams also compared an Oregon county sitting in Mountain Time with a neighboring Pacific Time county. "In fact," he said, "the one with more network exposure before closings had fractionally higher turnout." He found similar disproofs among Kansas and Idaho counties split by time zones. Adams surmised, "The ones most likely to listen and hear early projections may be the ones likely to be voting anyway."

Whatever the explanation, even the group that has been loudest about protesting early projections has started to lower its voice. The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate made a big splash when its analysis of preliminary 1980 turnout showed greater drop-off in western states than in eastern. But after closer examination? "Well," said committee director Curtis Gans, "we still show a pattern, but the pattern isn't as striking as it first appeared." Yet he insists that surveys show some turnout decline due to projections, from 0.5% to 3%.

Then for the sake of argument let us grant that projections do discourage some voters, however few. Would the poll-closing bill and network news restraint do more good than harm? I think not.

Thomas' Republican colleague, Rep. Robert E. Badham of Newport Beach, has opposed uniform poll closure because of its message: "We are saying that the people of California, Oregon, Washington . . . are too dumb to know that they ought to go to the polls anyway."

Then if voters are "too dumb" to go ahead and cast their ballots, think about how the proposal responds to their stupidity. Even with extended daylight-saving time, the bill forces western polls to shut down simultaneously with the East. That's an hour earlier than most West Coast polls currently close, making the Swift-Thomas bill counterproductive.

Even Gans, while bashing media projections, has opposed the current proposal because it cuts off western votes: "Most studies show that voters later in the day are blue collar, poor and minority voters. So the bill would hurt returns worse, while at the same time creating some inadvertent discrimination."

Rather than reducing western voters' chances for balloting at the "11th hour," Congress should take a different look at election reform. After all, turnout began dropping long before the networks used exit polls to project winners.

Creating a national holiday to help workers cast ballots would make real sense and would pay proper homage to the privilege. Those still compelled to work--police, retailers, nurses--should be given time to visit polling places.

Exit poll projections are another matter; whatever the networks have said about restraining themselves in the future is still their business. Gans says, however, that new laws would be acceptable as a last resort, arguing that there is no consumer demand for predictions before the polls close, citing a survey that showed 74% of respondents would favor legal prohibition of such broadcasts.

Perhaps. But we don't let government restrain free speech just because the speech isn't popular. Vote projections, at worst, give some people an excuse to be lazy on election day.

The real answer to any drop in turnout is closer elections. Not even minute-by-minute updates on the score would discourage interest if the contest were close. For now, absent some clear-headed ideas for bringing more voters to the polls, Congress would do well to leave bad enough alone.

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