Should Exit Polls Be Released Before Voting Ends?

Scott Shuger is a Slate senior writer and author of “Today’s Papers.” Jack Shafer is Slate’s deputy editor, “Press Box” columnist, and resident embargo-breaker (click here to catch up on the controversy and to read Shafer’s op-ed that ran in the Wall Street Journal).

Dear Scott,

What about the Hawaiians? In all the exit-poll hubbub, nobody has spoken up for the voters who live in a time zone two hours to the left of California’s. If you’re serious about an exit-poll/projection blackout until all the polls are closed, would you have the networks hold off until the last citizens in Kapaa cast their ballots? I can just see Dan Rather waiting until 2 a.m. Eastern time to announce the winner of the presidential election.

As for your endorsement of a ban on exit polls, that would require a substantial rewrite of the First Amendment. Are you up for that? Laws restricting pollsters from polling places have been struck down in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, Washington, Minnesota, and Wyoming. In tossing out a restrictive Minnesota ban in 1988, U.S. District Judge David Doty noted that the legislators’ intent was to prevent a projection of winners that might discourage citizens from voting. “Such a purpose is not a sufficient basis for restricting otherwise constitutionally protected speech,” Judge Doty wrote. If somebody supplies me with Judge Doty’s address, I’ll send him a bouquet of tropical flowers.

I should retire now, fully confident that both the law and the facts are on my side, but let me make a few more points and then let you have the last word.

The campaign for laws that would protect democracy by stilling free speech strike me as “semigogic.” Semigoguery differs from demagoguery by a factor of about half: Your standard semigogue almost never makes a vicious or angry appeal to people’s emotions, prejudices, and fears to win his case like a classic demagogue. He works his rhetorical magic in a softer fashion. Behold the great semigogue of our time, President Clinton, who mists up as he invokes the dangers that might come to children–poor, defenseless, sick children–unless we pass this law or that law restricting the freedom of adults. When exposed to a Clinton performance, I blubber incoherently and find myself prepared to back any law against tobacco, guns, alcohol, or drugs if it will save just one innocent child. Only when the TV switches off do I regain my senses.

It’s probably no surprise to you that the urge to ban exit polls or information about them also strikes me as semigogic. On the surface, it sounds quite wonderful: Let’s not discourage the voters from exercising their rights of citizenship by letting them know that the game is already over. But by that logic you could suppress all sorts of information in the name of protecting civil society. Let’s not report about a couple of crooked judges lest the people lose their faith in the judicial system. You can make up other examples of your own on the fly.

My bottom line is that I care more about liberty than I do democracy, so your prescriptions for censorship give me a chill. “A workable society depends on sometimes trumping truth with other values,” you write in your first installment. But, Scott, can there be a civic society unless truth ultimately trumps all other values? I think not. The truth is usually uncomfortable, inconvenient, disquieting, and burdensome. We do ourselves no favor in attempting to legislate it away.

If you’re right that exit polls discourage voting, would you call for a ban against other sorts of stories that might also discourage voting? Tracking polls, perhaps, published the day before an election? News stories that say that a candidate is washed up or report that one candidate has a lock on the election because he has the biggest campaign treasury? Or a piece, such as the one David Broder wrote for the Washington Post two days before Super Tuesday, in which he said the primary was over and declared Bush and Gore the winners? (David Carr makes this point in last week’s Washington City Paper.) And speaking of “votes that don’t count,” are you as disturbed by the staggered primary system as you are about exit polls? Millions of poor bastards got out of bed and went to the polls in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee on Tuesday even though the media crowned Bush and Gore the victors after Super Tuesday. Maybe you would have the press and government conceal all primary results until after the last primary?

Lastly, how about those Weimar Republic elections of 1933? My colleague Marty Plissner, author of The Control Room (Yes, this is another plug! Buy the book here.), has been following our dialogue and checked his encyclopedia to determine that if ever there was an election in which a journalist should have used his power to depress voter turnout, it was that one. More than 60 percent of the German population voted in that election. Marty extrapolates that to almost 80 percent of all eligible voters.

Marty also e-mails his thanks for your confession that you didn’t vote in 1980 because of the network projections of Reagan’s victory. He’s been canvassing for such a data point for 20 years, and is glad to have acquired the very first.

Now, you go last. I’ve enjoyed this greatly.