Is it Right to Report Results Before the Polls Close?

A new company intends to post election results before the polls close. Just because it can be done, should it?

October 3, 2016

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Around lunchtime on Election Day 2004, the first wave of leaked exit polls stunned journalistic insiders. Instead of the tight election that had been forecast, the early exits had John Kerry demolishing George W. Bush in a landslide. Even South Carolina (which had last gone Democratic in 1976) was tilting Kerry's way.

As you may have guessed, there were serious methodological problems with the 2004 exit polls. But, at the time, there was a near certainty among the cognoscenti that Kerry had won the election. In fact, journalist Mickey Kaus memorably called Kerry "the seven-hour president."

In the 12 years since that disaster, exit poll results have remained as hush-hush as Donald Trump's tax returns. The rise of social media has made this bank-vault secrecy on Election Day imperative since any leaked numbers would reach millions of voters through Twitter and Facebook within minutes.

But all that is about to change on November 8.

A private company called VoteCastr -- with a bipartisan bent and an impressive collection of data mavens -- has announced that it will provide a form of election returns from seven swing states in real time as America votes. Slate, which published leaked exit poll numbers in 2000 and 2004, will trumpet the VoteCastr calculations to the world.

Journalist Sasha Issenberg, a friend and the author of an acclaimed book on campaign technology, The Victory Lab, explained VoteCastr's innovative methodology in a lengthy article in Slate. According to Issenberg (who is a director of the company), VoteCastr will monitor minute-by-minute turnout in key precincts and then match it to models predicting the likely candidate share of the vote in these precincts.

Using a Cleveland precinct as an example, Issenberg wrote, "So when a tracker visits Denison Elementary School and reports via a smartphone app that 78 people have voted by 11:15 am, VoteCastr can determine how well each candidate is faring. By blending this information with reports from dozens of other precincts across the state, VoteCastr’s statistical models can predict who is, at that very moment, winning Ohio and by what margin."

Just because you technically can do something, should you do it?

The argument that Slate editor Julia Turner makes is that the Election Day embargo on exit poll data or other voting information "is paternalistic toward voters and puts journalists in the awkward and unfamiliar position of concealing information from their readers."

Issenberg makes a more subtle point: Since campaigns view the electorate through the lens of precinct-by-precinct targeting, voters deserve to know how they have been profiled. Turnout models help victorious candidates understand what their election means. As Issenberg puts it, "A candidate who is sworn in thinking he won by turning out a party base is likely to govern differently than one who credits a last-minute swing from late-deciding independents."

Although I am grimly reconciled to the inescapable reality of real-time election returns this year while the polls are still open, I remain unconvinced by the arguments put forward by VoteCastr's cheering squad.

Even in the age of Trump, serious publications (including Slate) frequently make "paternalistic" decisions about what their readers need, instead of what they merely crave. It is why, say, the New York Times doesn't publish pornography even though it might boost third-quarter earnings. Or why no responsible publication prints the identities of CIA agents or rushes to name the victims of a tragedy before next-of-kin are notified.

Moreover, after the knotted 2000 results, the TV networks and the Associated Press have been rightfully cautious in making Election Night projections. I am hard pressed to see why walling off the exit-poll analysts from the network news teams on Election Day has undermined journalism or anything else.

I agree with Issenberg that voters should understand how presidents interpret their mandate. But I am baffled why voters need to have that information -- on a precinct-by-precinct basis -- at 2:38 on the afternoon of Election Day. The data analysis from VoteCastr will be just as valuable to voters, political scientists and campaign professions on the morning of November 9.

The roots of the current Election Day reticence by the networks date back to the 1980 campaign when President Jimmy Carter collapsed in the final week. Infuriating House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Carter conceded to Ronald Reagan just after 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time, while the polls were still open on the West Coast. Veteran Democrats like Oregon's Al Ullman, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, blamed their defeat on Carter making the earliest concession speech since the invention of radio.

As the New York Times pointed out in its article on VoteCastr, the data does not support the claim that there was a dramatic drop off in 1980 turnout on the West Coast. But that may have been because Carter appeared doomed by Election Day or that the knowledge of his concession speech spread much more slowly in a 20th century news environment. Even without statistical evidence, it is impossible to believe that anyone would be spurred to vote by being told that the presidential election had already been decided.

Since its methodology is unproven, VoteCastr's Election Day projections probably will not reduce turnout on November 8.  But, if successful, VoteCastr and its likely competitors will become a staple of American political life by 2020. As a result, getting voters to the polls would become an even more daunting challenge. About the best you could hope for in the future is that these early Election Day returns would be published with a large italicized warning: "Spoiler Alert." 

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of "One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In," a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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