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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/12/2000

Exit polls are cheapening our democracy

DETROIT - Sitting in my university office in Detroit, I knew who won the Ohio primary - and nearly all the "Super Tuesday" races - before you did. I knew it long before the polls closed. I may have known even before you voted, if you did. Does that surprise you? Does it make you mad? I think it should.

Here's how this happened. I hit a few buttons on my computer in mid-afternoon and got bootleg exit poll numbers Matt Drudge, creator of the infamous Internet scandal-screen "Drudge Report," had posted there. For Ohio, they said George W.Bush 60; John McCain 36.

Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans hadn't voted yet, but it scarcely seemed to matter. The social scientists and polling wizards seem to know us better than we do ourselves. (The actual result: Bush 58; McCain 37.)

This has been going on since 1980, and every time we vote, the well-connected and media-savvy know how to find those numbers, which the networks once vowed to keep secret.

Even if you can't find the exit polls on the Internet, you can easily figure things out well before the polls close from the winks, nods, and knowing glances of the network anchors. Does this affect things? Absolutely. Turnout in California plummeted abruptly after the initial projections flooded the airwaves. Near-final figures indicate that nearly a million fewer people bothered to vote than predicted that morning.

Why stand in line when Peter Jennings has, in effect, told you that it doesn't matter? Once upon a time, elections were democracy's great drama. There is no more gripping story in American politics than that of Election Night, 1948. Newspapers had set in type headlines proclaiming Republican victory.

But as the votes were counted, the broadcasters first expressed puzzlement, then doubt, then amazement, as the numbers tumbling in seemed to make no sense, until they realized at last that Harry Truman had been rejected by everyone . . . except the American people.

My own infatuation with politics began on Election Night, 1960. That contest was so close it was noon the next day before it was known that John F. Kennedy had barely won. Eight years later Americans were kept up all night for the Richard Nixon-Hubert Humphrey squeaker, and, even as late as 1976, it was nearly 4 a.m. before Jimmy Carter managed to secure an electoral majority over Gerald Ford.

Four years later NBC first used exit polls, and called Ronald Reagan's victory hours ahead of any other network. The networks vowed to project winners in each state only after the polls closed, and never ever to let those numbers out early.

But that didn't last very long. The news business is ruled by two contradictory commandments: "Get it first" and "get it right." When it comes to ratings, "first" nearly always wins. Plus, the people who go into the news business are, by nature, gossips.

So the exit poll crunchers tell their friends. Six years ago the stock market shot up on the news that Republicans were sweeping Congress. This year no one needed to be well-connected; Slate, the Internet politics magazine, began publishing them for all to see, hours before the polls closed.

Then Voter News Service, the network-funded consortium that produces the exit polls, threatened to sue. For one week the leaking semi-stopped. Slate's Jack Shafer wrote an irate column Feb. 29. "We stand censored . . . while my heart lusts for a battlefield pulped crimson with bodies from the legal departments, we have capitulated.

"Though we think VNS is stupid and wrong to try to keep this information secret, the question of their right to do so is more complicated."

But Matt Drudge takes no prisoners and respects no convention. Somebody gave Matt the numbers, and he happily posted them. As he and others undoubtedly will in November, before tens of millions of us have voted.

Those who think the numbers ought to be out cite the First Amendment, and what they call the "public's right to know." Exit polls are breaking news, and nobody can copyright the news, they claim. VNS, and others who would keep exit poll information private, say they are proprietary corporate information, much like a secret recipe. They both miss the point.

The First Amendment is the foundation of everything that we in my profession do, and everything this country is. It is the major reason we are not Albania.

But there is no more sacred ritual than the secret ballot, and the exit polls are violating, and in a sense, destroying that. The media have never been very good at self-discipline, and we seem to be getting worse. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know we are cheapening our elections and helping erode faith in democracy.

And I do fear that if we don't do something it will be done, in the end, for us and to us. When that happens, we won't need an exit poll to know who is the loser.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.



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