Democracy Hypochondria

A Presidential Commission endorses a nutty complaint.

“For decades,” says the National Commission on Federal Election Reform in its report issued this week, “public opinion surveys have disclosed abiding irritation with early projection of election results by the news media.” It’s true: Nearly everyone thinks that it is very naughty of the TV networks to project election results before voting is over. Many people who hear the networks call an election before they have exercised their franchise believe, in all sincerity, that their votes are being stolen. But, like primitives who believe their souls are being stolen when someone takes their photograph, these people are mistaken. It is a form of democratic hypochondria.

The Commission, appointed by President Bush and chaired by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, seems dead to the irony of citing poll results to justify a call for the suppression of poll results. The Commission apparently does not worry that by revealing that public opinion is settled on this issue, it has somehow denied you the right to make up your own mind. The Commission not only is not alarmed that readers of its report might be influenced by these poll results—it thinks that people ought to be influenced by these poll results.

But exit polls, taken as people leave the voting booth, apparently are different. With extraordinary vehemence, “The Commission condemns” the practice of reporting poll results before all voting is officially over (except in Alaska and Hawaii, which apparently don’t count). “This practice demeans democracy,” the Commission intones. “It robs candidates … of votes.” It “discriminates against citizens and candidates in much of the nation.” Tragically, the Commission concedes, even vile and filthy exit polls are protected by the First Amendment. But the report “strongly encourages citizens not to participate.” And it calls for new laws forbidding public disclosure of the official results until all polls have closed. “At the very least,” the report notes vindictively, this would make the network projections more “unreliable.”

It’s a startling notion that the government ought to be trying to make news media information more unreliable. Much of the effort of government officials is devoted to precisely this, of course, but you don’t expect to find it among the recommendations of a hifalutin commission. Especially since “unreliability” is one of the Commission’s major complaints against network projections in the first place. The idea seems to be that network projections must be made more unreliable so that people will recognize how unreliable they are. Communists used to call this kind of strategy “heightening the contradictions.”

The depravity of exit polls knows no bounds, apparently. Striking a pose more like Margaret Dumont than Capt. Renault, the Commission declares it “was shocked” at “reports” that exit pollsters have enticed voters with “tawdry inducements, such as small sums of money or [gasp!] cigarettes.” This creates “an unhealthy polling place environment,” the report notes primly.

It is, to be sure, an outrage if people attempting to exercise their sacred right to vote must pass through clouds of second-hand smoke. But as to the larger issue, it is the Commission that is blowing smoke. Consider a few undeniable facts:

1. If people have voted, they have voted. And if so many of them have voted before you do that the result is preordained when you enter the voting booth, that remains true whether or not the media report it.

2. Every voter is at the mercy of other voters. The chance of your vote determining the result is exactly the same whether you are the very first voter or the very last. That chance is virtually nil, even if you live in Palm Beach County. To the extent other things matter besides declaring the winner, such as the margin of victory or the size of the turnout, every vote matters equally no matter when it was cast.

3. Polls are conducted throughout the campaign, not just on Election Day. In most cases every voter who watches or reads the news knows the probable result before he or she enters the voting booth. The only difference between Election Day exit polls and earlier polls is that the exit polls are more likely to be accurate.

The only difference between a voter who has not heard the exit-poll results and one who has is that the second voter knows something that the first one doesn’t. It truly baffles me how it can be considered “discrimination” against someone to give him or her a piece of information that he or she is free to act on or ignore. The slightly different argument that exit-poll projections, by reducing voter turnout, harm democracy generally is an insult to these same people. It says that either they can’t be trusted with accurate information, or they can’t be trusted to assess the possibility—which the Commission itself considers obvious—that the information may be inaccurate. It says, essentially, that people should be tricked into voting by keeping them in the dark.

The Commission mocks network objections on the grounds that the networks long ago agreed not to report projected results in individual states until polls have closed in each state. The Commission is right that the networks have already abandoned the point of principle, and its new demands demonstrate that they were foolish to do so. Instead of agreeing to extend their pseudo-self-censorship, the networks should reassert their right to do their job of gathering information and sharing it with the public.

If network projections were as routinely wrong as the Commission suggests, no one would believe them and the alleged problem would solve itself. The Commission’s real complaint is that exit polls tend to be accurate. As such, they tell a truth that these high-minded formers and worthies would like to suppress, which is that any individual vote does not matter, if by “matter” you mean affecting the result. The important point is that every vote doesn’t matter equally, no matter when it was cast.