The Reason Exit Polls and "Early Calls" Should Be Avoided...
It seemed like a slam dunk, here in Oregon. Gordon Smith (R) was out, Jeff Merkley (D) was in. So, Fox News called the race in Merkley's favor.
So, what's the problem?
With only 20% of precincts reporting, the vote was FAR from over. In fact, in some areas (notably downtown Portland), people were STILL voting (having been told that if they were in line as of the tick of 8:00 on the dot, their vote would still be collected and counted).
As the night wore on, it became increasingly clear that the race was far from a "slam dunk." Merkley's margin slimmed from approximately 6-7% with only 20% of the vote counted to about a 3% lead with approximately 30-40% of the vote in. By bed time, the race was 47.6% for Merkley to 46.7% for Smith.
Come to find out this morning when the alarm went off and talk radio came on that the Merkley / Smith race was still as heated as the night before. Only, this morning, Smith was in the lead and NOT Merkley as the night before.
Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith gained a lead overnight in the race against Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley, although results from Multnomah County narrowed his lead this morning.
Preliminary results show Smith, a two-term incumbent, up by about 8,000 votes, with both candidates receving 47 percent of the vote. Constitution Party candidate David Brownlow was getting 6 percent. Multnomah County results were updated this morning but are not complete.
Apparently, the votes from outlying / rural areas had shored up Smith's numbers, where more suburban areas had been slanted in favor of Merkley.
The race is still on, as the last votes get tallied up today. Political pundits have said that once Multnomah county's votes are fully tallied it will tip the vote back in Merkley's favor. But, it's still anybody's game.
Despite the closeness of the count, expert number crunchers said they expect Merkley to win, perhaps handily. Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts, appearing as an analyst on Fox News(12), outright called the race for Merkley, based primarily on how many votes remain uncounted in Democrat-rich Multnomah County.
In a related story, the race in Minnesota between Norm Coleman and Al Franken has been 'uncalled' due to the percentage difference being less than 0.5%, triggering an automatic recount in that state. Thus the results aren't final and there is no winner until the recount.
The Associated Press today uncalled the Minnesota Senate race involving a former Saturday Night Live comedian. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman finished ahead of Democrat Al Franken early today in the final vote count, but his 571-vote margin falls within the state's mandatory recount law. That law requires a recount any time the margin between the top two candidates is less than one-half of one percent. The AP called the race prematurely and the story was published in today's Kalamazoo Gazette. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the recount won't begin until mid-November at the earliest and will probably stretch into December. It will involve local election officials from around the state.
Didn't we see similar issues back in the 2000 presidential race between Gore and Bush, with early numbers conflicting with final results?
This seems to highlight a possible problem with our current system and big media.
Should media be allowed access to preliminary numbers and be able to 'call' races before voting or counting has been closed in the affected states / precincts? It seems to be superficially improper to call races when only as little as 20% of the vote has been counted and not all precincts have been accounted for in the sampling. Should the ENTIRE race be called on account of only 1/5 of the vote?
While it seems logical to assume that a significant [but incomplete] sampling would carry forward into the more general [complete] sampling, it's not always so. We can see this clearly in the Merkley / Smith race, where initial numbers seem to have come from suburban areas favorable to one candidate but excluded rural areas favorable to the other.
It seems to me that elections should be 'certified' before releasing any numbers / percentages, as preliminaries / exit polls can be misleading. Why not try the 'American Idol' model, and have poll results certified by some independent 3rd party, with an 'unveiling' the next day or a week later, once the results are for certain?
Perhaps Ryan Seacrest is available?
I jest, of course. It's probably a wholly impractical solution. But it seems like something needs to be done. Checks and balances, or whatnot. Races should be called by election officials once the vote has been fully tallied, NOT by big media based upon incomplete information.