Exit polling: Let us know if it’s a do or don’t for Tuesday votes

Saturday, March 31, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:38 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

In the November election, senior city editor Scott Swafford sent out nearly 50 reporters to survey voters about their choices. His goal was to produce a story earlier in the day that gave online readers a sense of how the vote was going before the polls closed.

It’s the kind of story the crosstown paper has done for years. Swafford may have beaten our friendly rival at its own game: Missourian reporters went to 43 polling places and collected more than 600 surveys – a bunch of people in a few hours.

Some readers said scoring the votes before the polls closed tainted the process. Others were calling Scott even before the story was posted on in order to handicap the races. The question of whether to repeat the process on Tuesday is unresolved.

Is this kind of story newsy and valuable or destructive to the process? Scott and I would appreciate your input.

Exit polling has been around for a long time. It allows reporters to gather insight from voters as to why they voted the way they voted. It allows newsrooms to report election results with more authority ­— it’s voters, not experts, who make the final decisions.

Exit polls also scratch the journalistic impulse to get it first. (The “it” rarely matters, so long as there’s news involved.) Once the terra firma of afternoon newspapers and evening broadcasts, the Internet allows any journalistic outfit to publish at any time. News will continue to “break” first on your computer, your cell phone or on other digital devices. We all like getting news first. “Didya hear about ...” is universal.

So the Missourian can get exit surveys showing projected leaders first. Should it?

My newsroom colleagues can rightfully accuse me of talking out of both sides of my mouth, because I’m consistently pushing for more bulletin-like reporting on the Missourian Web site. In this area, though, I would push for a more leisurely pursuit.

There is some research that suggests reporting projections of winners can depress the turnout of those who hear the news before the polls close. Now, there’s a whole bunch of qualifiers: how close the result is, how close the race was expected to be and more. None of the studies I saw dealt with local races.

Even so, if these kinds of stories affect turnout, you can guess it’s a pretty small percentage.

I’m of the opinion that even a little bit is too much. As I write you, I can hear that other voice in my head hollering that it’s not a journalist’s job to send voters to the polls (or keep them away). What are the voices in your head hollering?

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