Deukmejian, Others Press for Uniform Poll Closings

Times Staff Writer

Contending that many Westerners feel disfranchised by the networks' early election-night projections, Gov. George Deukmejian and governors of other Western and Midwestern states urged their colleagues Sunday to press for a uniform national poll closing time.

"If you ask the average voter in the Western states, they certainly feel that very often the elections are decided and announced before they have a chance to go to the polls . . . and I'm sure it does affect some voters," Deukmejian told reporters after making his pitch at a four-day meeting of the National Governors' Assn.

Deukmejian and other supporters sought to characterize the plan--which would take effect only in presidential election years--as important to the whole nation. But the proposal received a chilly reception from the governors of several Eastern states, some of whom may oppose it when it is put to an advisory vote of the governors on Tuesday.

"I'm certainly sensitive to the concerns of the Western governors and the need to encourage all voters to cast their votes," said Gov. Edward D. DiPrete of Rhode Island. "But as a governor of an Eastern state, I would be hard-pressed to support any mandatory uniform closing time."

Critics like DiPrete, a Republican serving his third term as governor, cited the cost of keeping polls open an additional hour in Eastern states, disruption to schedules and a belief that a uniform closing time ultimately may not work.

"We're really at the mercy of the media," complained Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican. He said he fears that the networks, frustrated by the longer polling hours, would simply use exit polls to project winners before any of the states finished voting. In the past, the networks have pledged not to disclose exit poll data until polls have closed in the state where the interviews were conducted.

Deukmejian expressed surprise at the level of the opposition and said he was puzzled by the divisiveness of the issue.

The debate, however, reflects the regionalism that has hampered efforts to enact a uniform polling law since the issue was raised in the 1980 presidential election. Television networks projected Ronald Reagan the winner just after 5 p.m. Pacific Time. In short order and with polls on the West Coast more than an hour away from closing, President Jimmy Carter acknowledged defeat.

Predicted voter turnout slipped in California and the loser in one congressional race blamed that for his narrow loss.

One bill pending in Congress would require that all polls in the continental United States close at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, one hour later than the closing time in most states. To provide West Coast voters with enough time to cast their ballots, the bill would extend daylight savings time in the Pacific Time Zone by two weeks. That means polls in California would close at 7 p.m., one hour earlier than the current practice.

Similar legislation passed the House in recent years but was defeated in the Senate amid some of the same objections raised by the Eastern governors.

Pushed by Michigan Governor

The latest push by the governors was spearheaded by Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard, a Democrat, whose strong backing may help bolster support among the Midwestern states.

Deukmejian embraced the proposal in his January State of the State address when he included it in a political reform package that would also enact an earlier California primary and allow election of the governor and lieutenant governor as a "ticket."

Deukmejian said he believes the poll closing legislation "has a much better shot" at passage this year in part because of support he has helped round up among governors of the Western states.

A major flaw in the case presented by Deukmejian and other supporters is the lack of hard evidence that early projections change the outcome of other races.

California Secretary of State March Fong Eu once told lawmakers at a state hearing that as a result of the early projections in 1980 and the untimely Carter concession speech, "The horror stories flooded into my office--stories of voter lines dissolving like ice cream in a Sacramento summer hot spell." But Eu said the evidence was largely anecdotal and that studies have been inconclusive.

Nonetheless, Deukmejian noted in his presentation to the governors that in last year's presidential election, the networks were projecting George Bush as the winner as early as 5 p.m., three hours before polls closed on the West Coast.

"At a time when we are finding that there are fewer voters (registered) to vote, this is at least a step we can take," he said. "At least we can make voters feel a little better."

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