Election 2008

Jim Mone/AP
Robbinsdale, Minn.

Exit Poll Rule Irks News Groups in Minnesota

October 01, 2008 05:30 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
News groups have sued the state of Minnesota for better access to election polling places.

The Lawsuit

Minnesota law currently prohibits exit pollsters from standing within 100 feet of a polling place, which news entities say hampers their efforts to gather reliable election information, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In their lawsuit, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press, called the rule too limiting. To project winners in some races, the groups say they need more immediate access to voters to learn how and why they voted a certain way, according to the Associated Press.

Reporters usually try to speak to every third or fourth voter leaving a polling place. By the time a reporter is able to speak to a voter, however, that person may already be gone, or have blended into the crowd.

“Plaintiffs expect there to be enormous and unprecedented public interest in this year’s general election and intend to cover it closely and in great depth,” the group said in court filings. “Their reporting will cover much more than simply the outcome of the election. It will also include comprehensive analyses of the various factors that influenced the electorate, such as race and gender, the economic crisis, and the war in Iraq, among others.”

Attorney Susan Buckley told the Star Tribune that Minnesota is the only state with this restriction. Courts in 10 other states have struck down similar rules, saying they violate First Amendment rights.

The 2004 Presidential Election

The news organizations in the Minnesota lawsuit said they would have trouble maintaining the reliability of exit polls if the current rule stands. However, exit polls have confused election watchers in the past. During the 2004 presidential election, the polls had suggested that Democratic candidate John Kerry would become the next president. One senator was so discouraged by the numbers that she emailed her mother to say, “All is lost.”

Analysts said the 2004 polls did what they were supposed to do. “They are not designed to predict winners and losers, but rather to help news analysts spot demographic and other trends,” explained Faye Fiore and Nick Anderson in the Los Angeles Times.

Voter Influences

Exit Polls

Exit polls have been historically worrisome for their potential influence on voters in the western United States. In 1988, Cheryl Sullivan and Scott Armstrong wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “Go directly to the polls. Do not pass your TV set.” The concern at the time was that if George Bush dominated the presidential election, the contest could have effectively ended before Westerners finished voting. “We think it has a chilling effect on the electorate,” said Washington state Democratic chairwoman Karen Marchioro. “People should feel every single vote is a vote that counts.”

The “Limbaugh Effect”

Earlier this year, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh urged the public to keep “chaos” in the Democratic presidential primary by voting for Hillary Clinton. Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein said exit poll information in Indiana indicated that Limbaugh may have had at least some effect on voters. One in five voters who didn’t side with Clinton’s values still cast their ballot for her; 75 percent of people who said they didn’t identify with either candidate also voted for Clinton.

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