Man Without Qualities

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Learning From Florida

Recently there has been a good deal of fussing - mostly by Democrats - about partisan "disenfranchisement" and "intimidation" of voters in the 2000 election, especially, it is alleged, in Florida. The Democratic whining is clearly grossly exaggerated. But it is worth recalling that a good many thousands of Florida voters were apparently induced not to vote by the national television networks - and most of those voters were Republicans, as John Fund cogently summarized after the debacle:

The ... Networks ... declared the polls were closed in Florida when some 5% of the state, in the Central time zone, was still voting. Since those areas voted 2-to-1 for George W. Bush, the GOP nominee probably lost several thousand votes because citizens thought they couldn't cast ballots. ...

It's now well known that all five TV networks and the Associated Press declared Florida for Al Gore at 7:50 p.m. Eastern time, 10 minutes before the polls closed in the panhandle counties. That could not have dissuaded many voters from casting ballots. But far more serious was the announcement by all five networks at 7 p.m. Eastern time that the polls in Florida had closed. As Brill's Content reported: "At 7 p.m., ET, every network was talking about the poll closings in nine states. And every network was wrong: the polls were closing in only eight states. . . . The polls in that heavily Republican [panhandle of Florida] wouldn't close for another hour--8 p.m. ET." The networks, with the exception of Fox News Channel, continued to repeat this misinformation throughout that hour.

Affidavits from 42 poll workers or inspectors ... all indicated that they saw a decline in the number of voters beginning at 6 p.m. CST, when ordinarily the voting traffic increases. ...

An independent report commissioned by CNN accused all the networks of "an abuse of power" by confusing the public and interfering with democracy. ... But the networks have not specifically addressed why they all misreported that the Florida polls had closed. CBS, for example, explicitly stated that the polls had closed in Florida 13 times during the hour while the panhandle counties were open, along with 15 additional implied statements to that effect and frequent visual references to a map showing Florida's polls had closed. All of the networks except Fox News Channel repeated the contention that Florida's polls were closed throughout the hour that the panhandle precincts remained open.

There is growing evidence that the network poll-closing announcement did lower voter turnout. A survey by pollster John McLaughlin estimated that the early calls by the networks discouraged more than 4% more Republicans than Democrats to go to the polls. Another study, by John Lott of the Yale Law School, estimated the drop-off at 3%. That's a range of 7,500 to 10,000 Republican voters for the two studies.

The Committee for Honest Politics, a GOP-founded watchdog group, estimated that at each of the 361 panhandle polling places, the networks' false information dissuaded 54 people from voting. That would represent a total of 19,133 Floridians who didn't vote. If these voters would have gone 2-to-1 for Mr. Bush, as actual voters in the panhandle did, that means a loss of 6,377 Bush votes--nearly 12 times his official margin of victory.

There's no way of knowing how accurate these estimates are, but the testimony of poll workers and inspectors indicates that something certainly happened after the networks declared Florida's polls closed.....

On Oct. 30, a week before the election, Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris issued a statement to the media pointing out that the polls in the Central time zone would be open until 8 p.m. EST.

Since Mr. Fund wrote those words, much evidence of liberal network news willingness to work (and distort) in the service of the Democratic cause has surfaced, including the Rathergate/Memogate scandal that has ripped through CBS News and the grotesque memo of ABCNEWS Political Director Mark Halperin admonishing ABC staff not to "reflexively and artificially" hold John Kerry to as high a standard of "accountability" as George Bush.

It is, indeed, important to learn from what certain political actors did in Florida in 2000. But the people who bear the most watching include those who staff and manage the liberal network news divisions. It does not follow that more government regulation would make things better. But the blogosphere and media outlets themselves should be prepared to identify network news abuses before it is too late and the election is again plunged into litigation.

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