Imagine: It's 6:19 p.m. on Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, and you're stuck in traffic while heading to your home precinct to cast your ballot.
Suddenly, you hear on your car radio that CBS and ABC, based on exit polls, predict that George Bush will be the nation's 4lst president. With the result already in, you may well feel like skipping the precinct ballot and going home.This is, of course, a hypothetical observation, but I don't think many people would doubt its basic thrust.
Recall in 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter, relying on network projections, conceded defeat to Ronald Reagan even though there were almost two and a half hours left to vote in many Western states.
Early returns compromise the integrity of the election process. And if we don't act now, this situation will get much worse. It is entirely possible that major elections across the nation including the presidential contest, could be "called" by the networks by noon Eastern Standard Time.
Is there a solution? Yes - and it involves only minimal intrusion into the electoral process.
The problem is that our electoral process has not kept pace with technological advances, specifically polling, and does not provide for a uniform poll closing time.
Nearly four years ago, my colleague Rep. Al Swift, D-Wash., and I helped persuade the networks not to use exit polling data to project or in any other way suggest a probable winner of an election in a state until polls in that state were closed.
That agreement solved only part of the problem. Since the continental United States has four time zones, voters in presidential elections could still watch on television the actual vote totals from the East.
Under the proposed Uniform Poll Closing measure, introduced by myself and Swift, all polls in the continental states would close at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on presidential election days.
The bill's provisions may sound complex, but they're not. Two things happen:
- For presidential elections, polls would close at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, which is 8 p.m. Central Standard Time and 7 p.m. Mountain Standard Time.
- In the Pacific time zone only, in order to achieve a 7 p.m. poll closing, Pacific Daylight Time would be extended for two weeks, so that the four and one-half states in the Pacific time zone (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and the Idaho panhandle) would stay on Pacific Daylight Time for two weeks longer than the rest of the country.
This means polls in Pacific time areas would close at 7 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, which is the same as 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, thus achieving poll-closing uniformity.
Alaska and Hawaii, distantly detached from the United States, do not conveniently fit into the plan.
This plan passed the House in the 99th and 100th Congresses but failed in the Senate. Recently, it passed the House once more.
The time has come for the Senate to approve this legislation. Given that the networks have kept to their part of the bargain, Congress is beholden to hold up its part of the bargain, because there is no assurance that the networks will continue to honor the agreement without some action from Congress.
If Americans think there is a problem now with exit polling, just wait, because without an agreement, the networks will be free to call elections at any time on election day.
The Thomas-Swift bill is the best solution for standardizing the staggered poll closing processes of this vast nation. At best, its enactment would help increase voter participation. At least, people on the West Coast would feel that their votes counted.