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What Western Voters Know, and Does It Matter

October 31, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Like a storm brewing in the West, you can see this fight coming. If the networks declare a presidential winner while people are still voting on the West Coast Tuesday, watch for an explosion of anger.

It will come from those who are convinced that network projections, made while polls are still open in California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska, will discourage voters from exercising the franchise, potentially affecting the outcome of races all the way down the ballot.

The issue arises with almost every presidential election. In 1980, the most celebrated case, President Carter conceded at 8:10 p.m. EST _ hours before the West Coast polls closed _ and NBC announced ``Reagan wins″ five minutes later.

Some Western politicians haven’t gotten over it yet.

James Corman, a Democratic congressman from the San Fernando Valley in California, narrowly lost his seat to a Republican that year and his campaign manager, Clint Reilly, said later, ``It was nationally acknowledged that had Carter not conceded early, we would have won.″

Congress held hearings over four years and passed resolutions imploring the networks to hold their tongues while Westerners were still voting. But the networks won’t go along.

Lane Venardos, a vice president of CBS News, says no evidence has been found that a single potential voter ever decided to forgo voting because of a broadcast projection.

``We have uncovered not one whit of actual evidence of that,″ he said.

Lane Venardos, meet Bernie Tanner, 77, a California voter.

``If they told me the election had been won,″ Tanner said, ``I wouldn’t go out after 6 o’clock to vote. Why should I if my vote doesn’t count?″

Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which studies the causes of low voter turnout, said a number of studies show a drop of between one-half and 3 percent in turnout because of network projections.

Moreover, he said, 53 statewide or congressional elections in California, Oregon and Washington were decided by 3 percent of the vote or less between 1980 and 1990 _ races in which the drop in turnout could have been decisive.

``This directly impacts turnout in a very big way,″ said California GOP chairman John Herrington. ``It’s hard to imagine a worse example of public policy or public responsibility.″

In 1992, the election was so close that projections did not come early, but this year most voters will know that public opinion polls have pointed to President Clinton as the likely winner over challenger Bob Dole.

Broadcasters say that will mitigate the effect of projections of a Clinton victory, but Gans says it instead suggests a ``terrible″ problem.

That’s because the projections _ on television and radio, too, including Associated Press Radio _ could come unusually early, two hours or more before Western polls close.

The stakes are huge. California alone has 52 congressional races, Oregon five more and Washington nine. Perhaps two dozen figure to be competitive on election night, potentially decided by a few thousand votes or less. Oregon has a close Senate contest on the ballot, as well.

So, said Gans, with that many close Western races, ``the networks could screw up control of Congress.″

Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour said once the networks say the presidential contest is decided, they ``are telling people `Now there’s no reason to go. The election’s over.″

Today, Barbour sent a letter to executives at all the major networks urging them to agree to hold off on calling the races.

Barbour asked the networks to agree to not projecting winners in individual states based on exit polls or precinct analysis until most of the polling places in those states have closed.

He also asked that they refrain from announcing a winner in the presidential race before a candidate has been projected the winner in enough states to give the candidate 270 electoral votes.

``A race to be the first to declare the winer in the presidential election, before millions of Americans have a chance to vote would be an irresponsible and damaging course,″ Barbour wrote. The letter was sent to executives at ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC.

Representatives from CBS, NBC and CNN said today it was network policy not to declare a winner in an individual state until most of the polls are closed there. The presidential race won’t be called by a network until enough states have been projected to reach 270 electoral votes.

``We’re not doing this because he’s asked us to,″ said Heidi Pokorny, spokeswoman for NBC News. ``It’s been our policy.″

Pokorny and Steve Hayworth, spokesman for CNN, both said that if the presidential race is called before polls close in the Western states, network anchors will urge people in those states to vote because there are important local elections.

Some Californians say they will vote no matter what. Jorge Hernandez, 19, a biology student at San Diego State University, cites his interest in Proposition 209, the California ballot measure that would ban gender- and race-based preferences in hiring, college admissions and the awarding of government contracts.

CBS’ Venardos said the solution has been obvious for years: a nationally uniform poll closing time.

But Gans calls that a bad idea. Eastern states would have to foot the expense of keeping polls open until 11 p.m. so they could close simultaneously with those in the West at 8 p.m. PST.

Venardos says there is no point in hiding the obvious from viewers. People at home can add up the electoral votes in declared states and figure out when the total has reached 270, the number needed to win the presidency. That’s all the networks do, he said.

``Many of the politicians who come out every four years against us using exit polls are the same ones who will be on the phones on election day asking us what our exit polls show,″ he said. ``Why should we know what’s going on, and the politicians know what’s going on, and we not tell our viewers what’s going on?″

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