Ballot Box

Exit Poll Madness

AUSTIN, Texas–My phone is ringing nonstop with the latest exit poll numbers. My inbox is spilling over with them. But because Slate has agreed not to publish this data under the threat of a lawsuit from the Voter News Service (VNS), I can’t share them with you. You can find them, however, at, The Drudge Report, and other Web sites. The Political Insider even sent out the early exit poll numbers to its e-mail subcribers. And I can tell the essence of what I know, which is that the election is incredibly close. Bush is slightly ahead in the popular vote, but Gore is essentially tied in projections of the Electoral College. This is, in fact, the rare situation where the exit polls don’t tell you who’s going to win. It’s going to be a late and an exciting night.

The rationale behind suppressing exit poll information is that releasing it depresses turnout. The support for this notion is sketchy at best. But the contrary pretty clearly is true, namely that if the public knew what we journalists know on a day like today, turnout would increase. If potential non-voters knew how close the election really was, they would flock to the polls, especially in key states where a small number of votes one way or the other could decide the election.

I think it’s simply wrong for the press to conceal information that many voters would regard as relevant even if it were likely to depress turnout. But it’s unconscionable to withhold information that is likely to encourage people to exercise their democratic rights. All weekend, media pundits were dampening turnout by calling the result of the election a foregone conclusion–even if they didn’t agree what the result would be. Now that we know better, the same news organizations are keeping what they know a secret.

So if you haven’t voted yet, or know someone who might not vote, be informed that the election is incredibly close. Democrats are in range of picking up enough seats to win back control of the Senate, and presumably the House as well. In the presidential race, a split between the popular vote and the Electoral College is a definite possibility. The next leader of the free world could be determined by a few thousand votes in any of the following states: Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Maine, Arkansas, and New Mexico. According to some reports I’ve seen, exit polls are even showing Gore slightly ahead in Arizona and Colorado, where Bush was heavily favored to win. And if you live in New Hampshire, Washington, Oregon, Delaware, or especially Pennsylvania, this might be your chance to decide an election single-handedly.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.