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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

Just count the votes

The fuss over exit polls after the Nov. 2 presidential election is the proverbial tempest in the public policy teapot, unless you happen to be a television network news director whose job depends on airing the purported election outcome a nano-second or two before the competition.

We say purported because exit polls are really no different or more important than any other pre- or post-election sampling of public opinion. They are nothing more than a curiosity of the moment, not an official component of the election outcome.

But the fact that responses from voters as they left their polling places incorrectly indicated a victory by John Kerry over President Bush led to allegations of fraud by supporters of the Democratic candidate and a study by the pollsters to see what went wrong.

Joe Lenski, of Edison Media Research, and Warren Mitofsky, of Mitofsky International, compared the election-night polls with the actual count in their 1,460 sample precincts. What they found was that many Republican voters refused to be interviewed, skewing the results toward the Democratic candidate.

What they did not find was even more important. There was no evidence of fraud from the rigging of voting equipment, a complaint that led to a rare election challenge and Ohio s fruitless presidential recount.

Because so much is at stake in a presidential election, it is not surprising that so much effort and expense would be mounted to predict the winner before the official vote comes in.

But this somewhat irrational yearning is mainly a product of the electronic age, in which almost nobody is content to wait for anything.

Given misleading results from exit polls in 2000, when networks gave varying predictions on whether Al Gore or George Bush was the victor, why would anyone put much stock in the 2004 results?

The moral to the story is this: Chill out and wait until the votes are counted.

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