Florida Department of State

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Report on Uniform Poll Times

Uniform Poll TimesBack

Section 63 of the Election Reform Act, Chapter 2001-40, required the Division of Elections, in conjunction with the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections, to study the benefits and drawbacks of having uniform poll opening and closing times throughout the state. The Act specifically requested that the report address the following four areas:

  1. A discussion of the circumstances surrounding the 2000 Presidential election;
  2. Changing the state to one time zone;
  3. Changing polling times to coincide in both time zones; and
  4. Having the Central Time Zone not recognize Daylight Saving Time.

Below is the report that was developed as a result of this legislation. The Division of Elections worked closely with a committee appointed by the FSASE that included supervisors from Gulf, Marion, Bay, Walton, Washington and Holmes counties. In addition, all of the supervisors were polled regarding the four areas of discussion.


UNIFORM POLLING TIMES

Concerns that early reporting of projected election results may discourage voter turnout and affect the outcome of candidates and issues in the bottom sections of the ballot is as old as the information age. Uniform polling times were first proposed nationally in 1964, after the CBS television network projected Lyndon Johnson to be the President Elect when it was only 6:04 p.m. on the west coast. The debate was renewed following the presidential race of 1980 when then President Carter made his concession speech before polls closed in the west and again in 1984. In the wake of the 2000 Presidential Election, the issue of uniform polling times has been brought to the forefront of public thought. The time zone boundary which runs through the Florida Panhandle makes this issue relevant to Florida's elections for statewide offices, as well as Florida's part in future presidential elections.

MEDIA RESPONSE

The result of the 2000 Presidential Election was called, recalled, called again and recounted. On November 7, 2001, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, ABC and the Associated Press had all called Florida for Gore and all before 8 p.m. EST. The polls in the panhandle were still open when the presidential race was projected.

The Voter News Service ("VNS") was established in 1994 by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and the Associated Press with Fox News service becoming a member in 1997.1 In providing an election projection, VNS collects survey responses, or exit polls, actual vote tallies as well as the vote count from precincts and counties.2 Based upon this information, VNS provides data and analysis to all of the members equally. In 2000, VNS projected that Gore would take Florida at 7:52 p.m.3 This projection was recalled at 9:40 p.m., which resulted in media recalls and later erroneous projections.

Following the 2000 Presidential Election, many of the nation's major broadcast media outlets adopted a policy of not reporting or projecting which candidate has carried a state until all the polls are closed in that state.4 It should be noted that these major media corporations have made and adopted similar policies in the past that have not been adhered to. In 1985, many major networks reached an agreement with Congress to not announce results until a state's polls were closed. There are, of course, many other media outlets from which voters may still hear projections regarding ongoing contests, and it is unclear whether local network affiliates will refrain from projecting winners in Florida's statewide election contests until the polls in the panhandle close.

Because content based prior restraints on political speech are virtually prohibited by the First Amendment, government cannot effectively impede the conduct of exit polls by VNS. States' attempts to bar or discourage exit polling have been consistently rejected.5

ONE TIME ZONE

Adjusting time zone boundaries in the United States is the prerogative of the United States Congress and the United States Department of Transportation.6 The U.S. Congress has the power to adjust time zone boundaries by passing legislation. Passage of a bill in the U.S. Congress is sufficient in itself to affect a change in time zone boundaries.

It is also possible to change time zone boundaries without an act of Congress. This can be done by petitioning the U.S. Department of Transportation ("DOT") for a change. Ultimately, if this is the avenue one chooses to pursue, discretion lies with the United States Secretary of Transportation to grant or deny the request. The DOT accepts only requests which are predicated on the contention that the requested change would "serve the convenience of commerce."7

A petition to the DOT to eliminate the time zone boundary from the Florida Panhandle must be made by either the Governor or Legislature of Florida, or by the highest political authority of each county that would be moved from Central to Eastern Time as a result of the change. All such petitions, no matter the source, must include a certification that the request is an official action of the requesting party, and must include detailed factual support for the contention that the requested change would serve the convenience of commerce. Also, legislative bodies making such requests must designate a point of contact from whom the DOT may obtain further information.8

The DOT's General Counsel Office reviews all such requests as an initial matter. If that office feels that the requested change may be appropriate given the criteria outlined in Appendix B, it drafts a proposal that the change be effectuated, and holds public comment hearings in the affected area(s). There is then a two month period for written public comment, after which time the General Counsel's Office makes a recommendation to the Secretary of Transportation on whether or not to make the requested change.9

If, in his or her discretion, the Secretary does make the change requested, it will become effective at the next change to or from daylight savings time. If a request were made now, the earliest a change could take place would be the last Sunday in October, 2002.

CHANGING POLLING TIMES

Crafting a bill to establish uniform polling times throughout Florida will involve making some important and difficult policy decisions. One basic policy position may be that polls should stay open for the same length of time throughout the state. Another concern is that polling times must be set so that no voters are disproportionately inconvenienced. Statistics suggest that people tend to vote at somewhat different times of day depending on age, type of employment, and ethnicity, among other factors.10 Any change in poll closing times will need to maintain fairness to all eligible electors regardless of where they fall along these spectra.

In its recent study, released in June, 2001, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform relied on statistical data from the 1980's which indicates that changing the hours of operation of polling places will affect distinct demographic groups depending on whether polls are opened later and closed earlier, or opened earlier and closed later. Although the numbers used in the study may be flawed because of their age, it is reasonable to presume that the general demographic trends which they illustrate will still hold. In general terms, these numbers show that older people, especially those over sixty five years of age, tend to vote early in the day, as do people employed in farming, fishing, managerial or professional capacities, and those who live in rural areas. Conversely, younger voters, and voters who work in the trades, or in low skilled jobs tend to vote late in the day, as do people who live in urban areas, and Latin Americans. Within similar age and employment categories, Caucasian Americans and African Americans tend to vote at the same times of day.11 Based on this information, it is imperative that care be taken to maintain polling times which do not unduly inconvenience any demographic of voters.

Also, setting uniform polling times may involve not only changing the hours polls keep, but also changing the number of hours that polls are required to remain open. Pollworkers would be required to work additional hours in some instances. The costs associated with keeping polls open additional hours will also be an important consideration in deciding whether, and how to set uniform polling times.

EXEMPTION FROM DAYLIGHT SAVINGS

It has been suggested that one way to allow for uniform polling times throughout Florida would be to exempt the ten Florida counties which lie in the Central Time Zone from observance of daylight savings time.12 This can be done at the state level by basically exempting the state from observance of day light savings time.

The Uniform Time Act of 196613 ("Act") governs the ability of states to exempt themselves from adherence to daylight savings time ("DST"). The Act permits a state to exempt itself from observance of DST "by law," i.e., by passing legislation to the effect that either the entire state will no longer observe DST, or (if the state lies in two time zones) that the portion of the state which falls in one of the time zones will no longer observe DST as specified by the Act.14 Three states have exempted themselves form adherence to DST at this point in time.

Thus, the exemption of a state, or the portion of a state which falls in a time zone different from the rest of the state from observing DST is a matter left wholly up to each state, as no federal approval is required. The only restrictions imposed by the Act are that absent the passage of specific legislation by a state, all states must observe DST precisely as specified by the terms of the Act; and that no state may exempt any subdivision of its territory other than that part which occupies a different time zone from the rest of the state. Apart from this exception, a state must be exempted in its entirety or not at all. Although Florida qualifies for this exemption, it should be noted that DST ends on the last Sunday in October and general elections, being held in November, always occur during standard daylight time.

SUPERVISORS

A survey was distributed to the sixty-seven supervisors of elections in the State of Florida to try to obtain what the feeling was in the state regarding this issue. As a note, fifty-seven counties are in the Eastern Time Zone and ten are in the Central Time Zone (Gulf County is in both).

Thirty-one supervisors supported uniform polling times, while fourteen opposed uniform polling times (twenty one supervisors had no opinion). When asked what those times should be, as could have been guessed, the majority wanted to maintain the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time opening and closing times. In addition, the majority also stated that if there was to be one time zone in the state, it should be Eastern. Most followed this statement with the fact that the majority of counties are already in the Eastern Time Zone. It should be noted, however, that some of those supervisors in the Central Time Zone counties, even though smaller in number, were adamantly opposed to changing to EST.

Overall, most of the counties stated that the time zones did not need to be changed. That in changing them, it would lead to additional costs, longer pollworker hours, lower voter turnout and voter confusion. All of the supervisors in the state are more concerned with accuracy in tabulation than speed in reporting results. Many recommended restricting the release of results until all the polls closed or other similar measures to prevent the media from releasing results prematurely.

CONCLUSION

The idea of establishing uniform polling times in Florida has been proposed as a way to prevent future election results from being broadcast before polls in the Central Time Zone close, because many feel that voters in the Florida Panhandle who intend to vote between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. may be discouraged from doing so if they are exposed to reports that a particular candidate has already won the state. A strong concern to arise from such early reporting is that races for local offices may be significantly affected if voters are discouraged from going to the polls because they have heard reports that the races at the top of the ticket have already been decided.

Several studies have attempted to estimate the impact that the early reporting of projected outcomes has had on voter turnout. Most have found the impact to be slight or negligible.15 Representative Tauzin, co-sponsor of the Uniform Poll Closing Act in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 50, 107th Congress), has also acknowledged that the data suggesting that early projections reduce voter turnout "all anecdotal."16 One study of the 1980 presidential election however has found that voter turnout in the west may have been depressed by as much as twelve percent (12%).17 Whatever the true affect of early reporting on voter turnout, public opinion polls conducted after the November, 2000 elections suggest that there is significant support for establishing uniform polling times.18 It is not clear, however, what this public support for uniform polling times is based on.

Some studies have concluded that establishing uniform polling times cannot eliminate the problem of early projections which are broadcast before polls close because most early projections are based primarily on exit polling conducted for the media by Voter News Service ("VNS").19 Establishing uniform polling times in Florida would end the release of early official returns from the peninsula while panhandle polls are still open, but if the media are willing to fund large enough exit polls, they need not rely on the state's early reporting of returns to issue projections on which candidates will win the state.

[1] U.S. House of Representatives, Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing, p. 99.

[2] U.S. House of Representatives, Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing, p. 99.

[3] U.S. House of Representatives, Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing, p. 101.

[4] U.S. House of Representatives, Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing, p. 93 (AP), p.97 (ABC), p.114 (CNN), p. 117 (Fox) ; CBS has said that it will report Florida as "leaning" for a candidate before polls in the panhandle close because the state reports early results before the polls close in the panhandle. p. 109.

[5] See e.g., Daily Herald v. Munro, 838 F.2d 380 (9th Cir. 1988).

[6] 15 U.S.C. 261; 38 F.R. 34725.

[7] Id.

[8] See Appendix B

[9] 15 U.S.C. 266 makes subchapter II of chapters 5 and 9 in Title 5 of the United States Code applicable to actions undertaken pursuant to 15 U.S.C. 261.

[10] Uniform Poll Closing Report , Hansen, pp. 9-11

[11] Id.

[12] Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Calhoun, Jackson, and counties are in the Central time zone. Gulf county lies in both the Central and Eastern time zones, with polling times of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central Standard Time

[13] 15 U.S.C. 260.

[14] 15 U.S.C. 260a.

[15] 98 Harv. L. Rev. 1927,1945 fn3; 18 WTR Comm. Law. 1, 31; 58 U.Cin. L. Rev. 1003, 1005.

[16] 18 WTR Comm. Law. 1, 31.

[17] Uniform Poll Closing Report, Hansen, p. 3.

[18] Rep. Markey press release; Floridians Want Reform study, pp. 9-10.

[19] The Election Center, Task Force on Election Reform Report p. 38; Uniform Poll Closing, Hansen, pp. 11-13.