The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Spectator opinion not right regarding election results

I was disturbed by the editorial in the Feb. 22 issue of The Spectator entitled “Stay Out: Government Not Needed For Media Regulations.” It makes several statements that are deserving of more careful consideration than the writers appear to give to them. The gist of the editorial is that the government should not impose restrictions on the media to release the election-night results before the polls close. Allow me to examine several of these points.

The first argument focuses on attempts to prevent the media from releasing election results before the polls close nationally. The authors feel these politicians are, “misjudging the effectiveness of the media.” I do not know how the authors reached this conclusion, but I suspect they did not research it. I have studied the impact of the early release of election-night voting returns for the past six years, and there is substantial research in political science that demonstrates the early release of election returns does have an impact on turnout and elections.

The evidence shows that the early release of returns often dampens turnout in states where the polls are still open. To make matters worse, voter turnout normally declines far more for the party that is seen as “losing” on the East Coast. Thus, when the news media incorrectly predicted Gore as the winner in Florida, it is likely that West Coast Republicans decided not to vote as a result. Contests for Senate, House, state and local offices probably were impacted by a decrease in Republican turnout.

Let’s look at an example from the state of Washington. Slade Gorton, an incumbent Republican senator, lost by 2,200 votes out of nearly 2.4 million ballots cast. If the early call of Florida caused only 0.02 percent of the eligible Republicans in Washington to stay home, the final election results were altered. Research shows that as many as 2 percent of eligible voters stay home due to information from early returns, so it appears highly likely the media’s mistake unseated a senator. This, in turn, created an evenly divided Senate, leading to policy adjustments, leadership problems and rule changes. The impact of this single mistake is enormous. How many other races were affected? We may never know.

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The authors also contend the mistakes “have been corrected.” While the technical glitches in the data gathering may have been patched over, how can the media actually correct their errors? Will CNN petition the Washington legislature for a new Senate election? Can Gorton sue the news media for unfairly altering the turnout in his Senate race? When the editorial writers of The Spectator state that “news organizations should be able to correct their own mistakes by themselves,” it is clear they do not recognize the magnitude of the errors committed. The reason many legislatures are looking into restrictions is that these mistakes cannot be corrected. Once the election is over, nothing can be done. It doesn’t matter how many corrections are run, commissions formed, or apologies given, the mistakes are permanent and can alter the direction of a state or nation.

I also was disturbed to see the editorial writers argue a form of economic Darwinism. They stated that “poor news organizations are weeded out by a loss of interest from their consumers.” Do the editors believe people will stop watching network coverage of elections in response to these mistakes?

It is unrealistic to think that major media outlets will suffer serious financial damage from errors. Even if the writers are correct, how many more elections have to be biased, policy shifts forced and candidates unfairly punished before this Darwinian process occurs? How many chances does the media get to alter with election results before government should step in?

The 2000 election night disaster raises a fundamental question of democracy -which is more important: the rights of candidates and voters to have fair elections, or the rights of the media to release the results as soon as possible to make more money? While the media may scream at the top of their collective lungs about the free press, the reality is that election-night coverage is a major money-maker for networks. I am not suggesting that the media be forbidden from covering elections, I simply wonder why the media is so opposed to delaying the coverage an hour or two.

Is the advertising money these mega-corporations earn for those few hours really worth the price of unfair elections? Whether this debate is about money or conflicting freedoms, democracy is based on the principle of free and fair elections.

Is it so much to ask to limit press announcements of elections by a few hours to preserve the integrity of the democratic process? I think not.

I respectfully would suggest the editorial staff of The Spectator think about this as well.

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Spectator opinion not right regarding election results