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Networks Should Call Election Before All States Close Polls If Winner Is Known

November 4, 2008

If I am at home watching the states close polls, and a winner called for one candidate or another in those states, I can start doing the arithmetic for myself as to who is close to the magic number of 270, and the keys to the Oval Office.  As such I think it silly to suggest that the TV networks would somehow pretend that they were not able to do the same math.  In other words, when a winner is known, lets call the election.

And that seems to be the way the networks will proceed on Election Night.  When a winner is known, the announcement will be made, regardless if other states are still voting.

That means it’s possible, if not altogether likely, that the presidential election could be called before polls close in the West. That happened once before, in 1980, when the election was famously called — and conceded — by 9 p.m. ET. But it’ll be the Internet, cable and the speed of news that will be the driving factor this time.

The networks all promise to take the time to project the race accurately, and and say they won’t make any predictions before their time. But executives say it would be foolish for them to sit on a projection if they’re sure, and it wouldn’t be fair to viewers.

“There’s no way to get around it,” CBS News senior vp Paul Friedman said. “If one man gets 270 electoral votes before the West Coast polls are closed, we’re not going to pretend (he doesn’t).”

Phil Alongi, who runs special events programing at NBC News, agrees.

“If you project a state and (the candidate) reaches the electoral vote, what are you going to do? Lie?” Alongi said. “We will project a state when we’re comfortable with the projection. If one of them hits the required 270, you have to report that, and you can’t hold back.”

The networks all have agreed not to call an individual state before the voting stops there. But an overall projection could come before folks in California, Nevada and Washington finish voting. Executives know it’s a fine line that they’ll be walking, and it goes beyond a strict up-and-down counting to 270.

“Suppose that one guy has 260 (electoral votes) and we have exit polls and other information indicating that he’s going to pick up the votes he needs,” Friedman said. “It becomes the delicate matter of telling the audience of what we think is going to happen without discouraging them to vote.”

CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman, who grew up on the West Coast, is acutely aware of the issue. But he said CNN can’t hold back. That doesn’t mean, however, that the networks won’t take pains to say that, even with an early victory, it’s important to vote. Friedman said there are plenty of House and Senate races and local issues that need to be decided regardless.

“We’re acutely aware of not wanting to be in the position of discouraging people from voting,” Friedman said. “But we’re not someone’s nanny. There are reasons to vote on the West Coast (even with the presidential race decided).”

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