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).

Hi, Jack:

You imply that in my attempt to protect the voters of California, I’ve done badly by the voters of Hawaii. Every theory of anything has a root way of marshalling the most data it can, but there’s always other leftover data. The mark of a good theory isn’t no leftovers; it’s smaller leftovers that don’t seem to matter all that much given what the theory delivers. So yes, Hawaiian voters would be disserved in my scheme (because I agree that we don’t want to make Dan Rather wait until 2 a.m.), but a far greater number of voters in California, and indeed in most of the rest of the United States, would be served very well.

A quick note on the German elections of 1933: A press effort to turn out the vote might have encouraged more Communists and Jews to vote, which would have depressed the 44 percent Hitler got (the Nazis became the majority party only after Hitler expelled 81 duly elected Communists from the Reichstag). But who knows? Maybe by 1933 it was too late. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an earlier time in the Weimar days when it would have been in the interest of the free press (almost immediately plowed under after the 1933 vote) to promote turnout.

You’ve cited an array of state court cases overthrowing bans on exit polls and even quoted one judge saying that preserving turnout doesn’t justify restricting protected speech. Given the number of issues remaining between us (the unresolved question of the thrust of the empirical research, the force of familiar and accepted non-life-and-death newspaper practices of suppression), I have to assume that none of these rulings decides them either, which just suggests to me that what we have here is a case that begs adjudication by the Supreme Court. VNS vs. Shafer, et al., has a certain ring to it.

As for your parity of reasoning—saying, Hey, how about also not reporting on crooked judges, or not running stories saying that one candidate is washed up or that another has a lock on the election because of his overwhelming campaign treasury—these are just classical sorites arguments of the sort that allow you by gradation to prove that a bald man has a full head of hair. Although these arguments are dearly loved by the ACLU, they are fallacious. I am not saying that voters should be protected from all information that’s similar to information that’s similar to information … that would discourage them from voting; I am saying that they should be protected from information that discourages them from voting. And there is a very big difference between the sorts of stories you mentioned and a scientifically conducted exit poll, one that accounts for a huge difference in voting deterrence: The polls have only a very small chance of being wrong. 

Yes, I am disturbed by the staggered primary system. It seems obvious from the way the staggered system has been jobbed in recent years that we’d be better off with a two-month campaign run-up to a single primary day. Without exit polls. Let’s call voting that’s on the merits “first-order voting” and voting that’s driven by a perception of how others are voting or have voted “second-order voting.” Staggered primaries and the early release of exit polls both encourage second-order voting. But even if election results were unchanged by the first-to-second-order conversion (which you haven’t shown), a first-order-voting society, being more driven by substance, is preferable.

You say that you care more about liberty than you do about democracy. And then you say that truth ultimately trumps all other values. Which implies that you also care more about truth than about liberty. (You may lose your Libertarian membership card over this.) That’s good then, because paradoxical as it may seem, truth often destroys liberty. John Locke has a wonderful little example of a man waking up in a strange room. He looks around and sees a door at the foot of his bed and, after thinking it over, decides to go back to sleep. We would say that the man, upon waking, freely chose to go back to sleep. We would say that even though, unbeknownst to him, the door is locked and on the other side of it stands an armed guard. And yet, if he learned upon awaking that this was his situation (from an official note signed by the king on his nightstand, say) and then went back to sleep, it would be much harder to see in what sense he did so freely. The casualty of his knowledge is his free choice. With the rise of scientific polling, voters are like the man in the room. What they don’t know can help them.

Enjoyed it too,