The following editorial appeared in today's Providence Journal:
The multi-layered mess in Florida might have been avoided had the television networks not so disastrously inserted themselves into the process on Election Day.
While voting booths were still open in the Florida's panhandle, which is in Central Time (one hour earlier than in the rest of the state) and a stronghold of George W. Bush, all the networks using erroneous data from exit polling called Florida for Al Gore. Eyewitnesses reported seeing many voters, waiting in long lines to cast their ballots, simply giving up and going home. Bush officials furiously tried to get the networks to rescind their call something the networks did only long after the polls closed.
It is hard to say exactly how much that hurt Mr. Bush in Florida, but the premature call could have cost him thousands of votes votes that might have given him a clear victory, not the razor-thin margin that prompted Al Gore to fight on.
Indeed, the erroneous call for Mr. Gore on top of Bush defeats in the crucial battlegrounds of Michigan and Pennsylvania may have depressed Mr. Bush's support in Western states, since it seemed that, with Florida in the bag, Mr. Gore was well on his way to the presidency. Or, somewhat less likely, it could have perverted the outcome by suppressing some Gore votes. Anyway, who knows what the popular-vote margin might have been without the networks' error?
You may have noticed the networks are not dwelling on this angle of the furor; it is not in their interest to remind the public that their errors might well have swung an election. But they have at least done some soul-searching since Election Day.
ABC News, acknowledging "the seriousness of the errors" it made, promised:
To hold off calling a winner in a state until that state's polls have closed.
To perform "independent analysis" of information from Voter News Service, the consortium set up by the networks to do exit polling on Election Day.
To try to make independent calls, avoiding the "herd mentality" of rushing out a projection simply because other networks have.
Other networks are undergoing similar reviews of their procedures.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill are furious, asserting that networks called states quickly for Mr. Gore but took much more time to make similar calls for Mr. Bush, thus feeding into the perception while polls were still open in much of the country that Mr. Gore was rolling toward the presidency. There has been talk of trying to ban networks from making projections while polls are open anywhere and, barring that, making all polls across America open and close at the same moment (which could produce some interesting situations, such as midnight voting in some places!).
Neither of those approaches will work. The First Amendment clearly protects the networks' right to disseminate news instantly even in the form of exit polls. And, under our federal system, states and localities should be making decisions about poll hours, not federal officials, who could try to use that power to influence the outcome nationwide.
The best thing would be for networks to voluntarily stop exit polling entirely. The next best we can hope for is that networks will now understand that they have an enormous civic responsibility to show restraint. At the very least, they should stop making calls about a state while any polls in that state remain open.
Many voters, unfortunately, will always be swayed by what they hear on TV. We hope this episode, though, persuades thoughtful voters to ignore what the networks say, to stay in line and do their duty, no matter what. Experts are often wrong.
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