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If Asked, Don’t Tell


The secret ballot. How’s that for an idea? It’s supposedly been a fundamental right of all citizens since the 1880s.

 

What if we began taking that right seriously? What if we decided it doesn’t make sense to slip behind a curtain to vote and then dash outside and blab to a pollster – or to tell all even before we get behind the curtain?

 

No longer would we fuss over the media’s use of polls to declare winners and losers, or likely winners and losers, as quickly as possible and thus discourage some citizens from going to the polls at all and encourage others to show up to vote for the front-runners.

 

No longer would we be burdened with pre-election coverage that stresses polls and who’s winning or losing rather than focusing on the issues — coverage that presumes to tell us what will happen before it actually happens, that presumes to tell us how we will vote before we actually do so.

 

No longer would we suffer smug post-election coverage stressing whether we had performed as predicted by the all-knowing media and their polls and thus had acted "as expected" — or, of course, had participated in an "upset" or "surprise" that no one could possibly have anticipated.

 

Polls, in any case, are not real news, but artificial media-made news and entertainment. And when they’re badly done, they can cause havoc. Think, for example, of the exit polls on election night in 2000 that declared Al Gore as the winner in Florida over George Bush and thus the president-elect.

 

There’s an easy way to stop all this nonsense. The next time someone dares ask how you’re going to vote, or how you voted, remember your right to the secret ballot. Say it, and say it loud: "None of your damn business!"

 

Or lie, as the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko once suggested.

 

"All you have to do is tell a little fib," he explained. "Then go home, sit back, relax, and watch the anchormen slowly swallow their tongues."

 

True, exit polls can help show the nature, needs and desires of the electorate. But there are plenty of other ways to do that without interfering in the fundamental democratic practice of conducting elections.

 

Using exit poll results to predict and declare election winners is only part of the media’s interference. They also use the actual vote totals in their attempts to beat the competition and attract lots of customers for their

advertisers.  

 

They carry their treatment of elections as horse races into the counting of votes on election nights. The polls are closed, the votes are in and all that remains is that they be counted. But listening to the media, you’d think the votes were still being cast, minute-by-minute. It’s as if the candidates were racing around the track at Churchill Downs, as if the order in which their votes happened to be counted made for a contest.

 

Typically, CNN’s Lou Dobbs reported, just as the polls closed in South Carolina’s Republican primary in January, that "we’re going to have interesting contests tonight." And sure enough, on came Wolf Blitzer to exclaim,  "There’s a battle underway for second place!" Minutes later, he excitedly told of candidates who "are now fighting for first place!"

 

The underlying message of such reporting, as of any commercial television programming, is for us to "stay tuned" – stay tuned, that is, for the next commercial.

 

Newspapers can’t have as much fun in this regard, but they do try. They, too, treat vote counting as horse racing. A typical post-election report recently told readers, for instance, that although early returns favored a particular candidate, his opponent prevailed after "a thrilling, nail-biting finish." Another candidate won in "a stunning, come-from-behind finish." And losers? Well, they often are described as having "trailed all night."

 

But at least those reports are based on actual votes rather than on exit poll information that should be none of the media’s damn business.

 

 

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has reported on – and voted in – elections for a half-century. But never has he spoken, except rudely, to a pollster. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com

 

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