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Jewish World Review May 7, 2001 / 14 Iyar, 5761

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida -- THE entire Florida election dispute might have been avoided if the networks hadn't declared the polls were closed in Florida when some 5% of the state, in the Central time zone, was still voting. Since those areas voted 2-to-1 for George W. Bush, the GOP nominee probably lost several thousand votes because citizens thought they couldn't cast ballots. Mr. Bush eventually carried the Sunshine State by a mere 537 votes.

Itís now well known that all five TV networks and the Associated Press declared Florida for Al Gore at 7:50 p.m. Eastern time, 10 minutes before the polls closed in the panhandle counties. That could not have dissuaded many voters from casting ballots. But far more serious was the announcement by all five networks at 7 p.m. Eastern time that the polls in Florida had closed. As Brill's Content reported: "At 7 p.m., ET, every network was talking about the poll closings in nine states. And every network was wrong: the polls were closing in only eight states. . . . The polls in that heavily Republican [panhandle of Florida] wouldn't close for another hour--8 p.m. ET." The networks, with the exception of Fox News Channel, continued to repeat this misinformation throughout that hour.

Affidavits from 42 poll workers or inspectors were presented at a hearing chaired by Sens. Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman yesterday. They all indicated that they saw a decline in the number of voters beginning at 6 p.m. CST, when ordinarily the voting traffic increases. The networks have yet to fully own up to or explain this more serious mistake. (I repeated this mistake in my Election Day preview piece, for which I relied on the network pre-election briefing books.)

To their credit, the networks did undertake some searching examinations of why they prematurely awarded Florida to first Al Gore and then to Mr. Bush. An independent report commissioned by CNN accused all the networks of "an abuse of power" by confusing the public and interfering with democracy. The report, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Risser, former journalism school dean Joan Konner and Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute, concluded that the networks "staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country and their own credibility, all for reasons that may be conceptually flawed and commercially questionable."

In response, all of the networks have pledged not not project an election winner in a state until every polling station there has closed. CNN also vowed not to use exit polls alone to call close elections. But the networks have not specifically addressed why they all misreported that the Florida polls had closed. CBS, for example, explicitly stated that the polls had closed in Florida 13 times during the hour while the panhandle counties were open, along with 15 additional implied statements to that effect and frequent visual references to a map showing Florida's polls had closed. All of the networks except Fox News Channel repeated the contention that Florida's polls were closed throughout the hour that the panhandle precincts remained open.

There is growing evidence that the network poll-closing announcement did lower voter turnout. A survey by pollster John McLaughlin estimated that the early calls by the networks discouraged more than 4% more Republicans than Democrats to go to the polls. Another study, by John Lott of the Yale Law School, estimated the drop-off at 3%. That's a range of 7,500 to 10,000 Republican voters for the two studies.

The Committee for Honest Politics, a GOP-founded watchdog group, estimated that at each of the 361 panhandle polling places, the networks' false information dissuaded 54 people from voting. That would represent a total of 19,133 Floridians who didn't vote. If these voters would have gone 2-to-1 for Mr. Bush, as actual voters in the panhandle did, that means a loss of 6,377 Bush votes--nearly 12 times his official margin of victory.

There's no way of knowing how accurate these estimates are, but the testimony of poll workers and inspectors indicates that something certainly happened after the networks declared Florida's polls closed.

A poll worker in Bay County reported: "Voting was steady all day until 6 p.m. Between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. was very different from past elections. It was very empty. The poll workers thought it was odd. It was like the lights went out."

A clerk for elections in Okaloosa County: "Soon after 6 p.m., I noticed the volume dropped to almost zero. In past elections, there was usually a rush of people coming from work, trying to get to vote before the polls closed."

Another clerk for elections in Okaloosa County: "I don't think we had more than five people from 6:15 until we closed at 7 p.m. We had averaged 80 voters per hour until the last hour."

Warren Brown, deputy for elections, Santa Rosa County: "Eight years ago in the presidential election, there were so many people in line that the last voter did not vote until nearly 10:30 p.m. When I went outside at the end of the day to tell people to hurry along, there was no one in the parking lot."

Barbara Alger, a poll inspector in Escambia County: "The last 40 minutes was almost empty. The poll workers were wondering if there had been a national disaster they didn't know about."

On Oct. 30, a week before the election, Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris issued a statement to the media pointing out that the polls in the Central time zone would be open until 8 p.m. EST. "The last thing we need is to have our citizens in the Central time zone think their vote doesn't count--because it certainly does," she implored the networks. "Waiting until 8 p.m. EST allows all Floridians the opportunity to decide the outcome of races within Florida." The networks ignored her.

"I remain very disappointed in what the networks did on Election Night," Ms. Harris told me. "I still haven't heard a complete explanation."

"The networks owe a duty not to misstate poll closing times, especially when they have been asked by the state involved not to do anything to disrupt voting in that state," says Dan Perrin of the Committee for Honest Politics. He wants to amend the Federal Communications Act to prohibit "on the day of any federal election" any licensed broadcast outlet from disseminating "any false statement concerning the location or times or operations of any polling place designated by proper state authority for use by electors in such election."

That's regulatory overkill, but the networks would be wise to note how much their credibility has eroded as a result of the Florida debacle. They should supplement their promises of better behavior in the future with an explicit promise not to declare that polls in any states have closed unless they actually are. So far they haven't done so. Let's hope the Thompson-Lieberman hearing this week is a wakeup call for them.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
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12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
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09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
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09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund