Articles

Twelve things the world should toss out

May 05, 2010

Let's get rid of exit polls. I hate 'em.

On Election Day, the news media endows exit polls -- surveys asking people whom they voted for and why -- with false scientific precision. And their early release often generates off-base projections and misleading coverage, which can affect the contests themselves.

Remember 2000? Early exit poll numbers released midday on Election Day showed George W. Bush tied with Al Gore in Mississippi, Colorado, Arizona and Alaska, and had Bush losing Florida. It was virtually impossible for Bush to prevail without Florida, yet those early poll results encouraged commentators to put the state into Gore's column as early as 7:48 p.m., while voting continued in the Florida panhandle.

This affected turnout. The 24 states where polls closed after 8:30 p.m. Eastern time saw turnout rise by 2.3 percent over the 1996 election. But in the 26 states and the District of Columbia where polls closed before 8:30, turnout increased 2.9 points over 1996. This meant that more than 400,000 voters stayed home in the central and western United States, most of them likely Bush voters. This potentially affected New Mexico (which Gore won by 366 votes) and Oregon (where he won by 6,765).

The exit polls colored the night's coverage. For example, CNN's Bernard Shaw declared Georgia and Virginia "too close to call," even though Bush ended up winning the former by 12 points and the latter by eight points.

In 2004, things were even worse. Early exit polls had Bush losing Ohio and North Carolina and dead even in Florida, Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina and Mississippi -- all states where he prevailed. Again, the polls affected the coverage, with the media reluctant to award Ohio to Bush, though he won it by nearly 120,000 votes.

On election nights, networks feel pressure to display early exit poll numbers in snazzy graphics to explain what groups are breaking what way. But these numbers almost always differ from the final version of the exit polls, after gurus crunch the data during the evening.

If America must have exit polls, then let's not add up the numbers until the voting ends -- and let's break our addiction to these polls over actual returns.

This article originally appeared on WashingtonPost.com on Thursday, May 6, 2010.

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