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Too Close to Call? Uncertainty and Bias in Election-Night Reporting

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Abstract

Previous research has found that early election-night projections can have a depressing effect on turnout in presidential elections. Although this effect has been found to be small in the past, it may be enough to sway state outcomes and, potentially, the final outcomes of close presidential and other elections. Therefore, this article analyzes the election-night presidential projections of the three major cable news networks in 2000 and 2004 to examine the forces that lead to the timing of election-night calls. Copyright (c) 2007 Southwestern Social Science Association.

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The principle of simultaneity—that citizens should vote as far as possible at the same time—is more significant than is usually appreciated. It is based on a fundamental value of democratic theory, and it has substantial implications for electoral practice. It also invites further normative and empirical research. The most important value that simultaneity expresses is a form of equality—equal respect. First, if citizens have only information they would have had if they were voting at the same time, the value of each citizen's choice is no greater than that of any other citizen. Second, when citizens go to the polls on the same day, publicly participating in a common experience of civic engagement, they demonstrate their willingness to contribute to the democratic process on equal terms. Taking simultaneity seriously has implications for electoral practices. It would limit the practice of media projections of election results, including the reporting of exit polls, and the calling of elections before all the polls close. It also casts doubt on the increasingly widespread use of early voting—absentee ballots and voting by mail. Early voting weakens the value of the experience of participating in a civic activity. Voting alone may be worse than bowling alone.
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