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Early Release of Exit Poll Data Can Affect Voter Behavior

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Election map by FiveThirtyEight as of Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. predicts Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton with a 71.4 percent chance of winning over Republican nominee Donald Trump.

From Texas Standard:

One fateful night in 2000 left the nation without a president-elect for over a month: the election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush was too close to call.

But that didn't stop network news from calling the race wrong – twice. First, many reported that Gore won Florida, then media sites called the electoral college for Bush, as the official campaign results played out in the courtroom.

It wasn’t the first election during which the public scrutinized the role of news outlets in covering Election Day. Back in 1980, coverage of the presidential race between Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan also concerned voters.

Media outlets now follow a trend of muted coverage of candidates on Election Day or hold back the release of early results in key states.

Kirby Goidel, professor at Texas A&M University, says the public is still concerned about releasing early exit poll numbers.

"There's real concern that by providing projections too early during the day that voters, especially out on the West Coast, will get out of line and decide not to vote,” Goidel says. “For the presidential election, that may matter a whole lot less but if you're a down-ballot candidate in one of those races, that's really troubling."

But some organizations want more transparency. One website, VoteCastr, is pairing up with Slate and Vice to give a real-time data stream. The site introduced itself today as it went live:

“35 years ago, legacy media organizations collectively agreed to withhold election day data from their audiences. They decided it was too dangerous for the public to handle. Politicians agreed with this, believing real time data and projections would keep voters away from the polls and skew the outcome.

These folks get to watch the game play-by-play, then only report the final score once it's all over. You don't.

VoteCastr believes that providing information and analysis coming out of key battleground states to the American public throughout Election Day will connect the electorate to voting in a new and very powerful way.”

Although this promise of real-time voting data is intriguing, the way it’s presented on the site – the information-rich hoarding the numbers in collusion with politicians – doesn’t take into account the complications.

Goidel says early numbers could affect voter turnout.

"Knowing what's going on in an election can affect your behavior,” he says. “What we would like as much as possible – that people are deciding to vote for the candidates that they prefer and are not making their decision based on whether or not they think a candidate is likely to win or likely to lose."

Especially in the 1980 election, Goidel says a deeper dive into the data showed that early Election Day coverage had “a small, but important effect ... in moving people to decide not to vote."

Although the consequences of early data release may not change the presidential election, Goidel says it could have dire consequences for local elections.

“The early release of data can be wrong which is one of the concerns with Votecastr – is that the models will change over the course of the day,” he says. “We can draw conclusions based on early returns that won't hold as the day progresses and we see who turns out later in the day as opposed to early in the morning."

But Goidel says competition among news outlets presses for organizations to break news first, so releasing numbers early could be the new norm.

"I think it's very hard these days in a competitive media environment, a competitive news environment, for any news organization to hold off providing information,” he says, “because there are too many other organizations out there that are willing to provide that information who aren't going to hold to this as strict standards.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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