NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FLORIDA · Newsgathering · Oct. 26, 2006
Exit polls allowed near voting place entrance
Oct. 26, 2006 · Exit poll takers in Florida would have been required to stand 100 feet away from any voting place entrance on Election Day next month, but on Tuesday a federal judge in Miami struck down the law as unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Paul Huck noted in his opinion that the 100-foot restriction that was placed on exit poll takers from the entrance of voting places forbid even the “peaceful, thoughtful discussions with voters regarding how they voted and why.”
The Associated Press and five television networks filed suit Sept. 29 against state and county election officials in Florida. The news organizations want to jointly conduct exit polls during next month’s elections.
Huck said he did not see evidence that the voters were hindered in any way by the exit polls.
Exit polls are protected forms of expression under the First Amendment and serve their purpose for research and discussion about political trends, according to the opinion. Huck noted that an exit poll is “accomplished unobtrusively by approaching voters after they leave the polling place in a scientifically pre-determined pattern.”
The polls are voluntary.
Huck mentioned that without protection for the media’s ability to question voters, reporting on and publishing political news would be difficult and incomplete.
The state argued that it had an interest in protecting its citizens’ ability to vote and cited numerous citizen complaints that, according to the opinion, related to “various individuals soliciting or offering information.”
While Huck acknowledged that interest, he said the state failed to show evidence that the existing law interfered with voter participation. He said that the complaints received were not about exit poll takers and left the 100-foot ban intact for those electioneering or passing out campaign materials.
“The Legislature’s grounds for imposing limits on exit poll takers was based on anticipated problems that never materialized,” said Dave Tomlin, AP’s associate general counsel.
Florida sought to prohibit all exit polling and interviews of voters by reporters. The statute as written does not restrict a journalist’s entry into the 100-foot zone.
“Our interest in this case was confined to exit poll takers,” Tomlin said. “The 100-foot limit doesn’t harm journalists’ work nearly as much as it has been shown to disrupt the exit interview pattern that ensures a random selection.”
Tomlin hopes that the Florida Legislature will accept the fact that exit polls do not interfere with voting participation and points to the part of Huck’s opinion that shows voter participation rising in past elections.
AP and the networks have also filed suit in Nevada to get a similar law overturned.
The same media organizations sued this week to clarify Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s directive on voting, which was drafted after a judge last month threw out Blackwell’s 2004 rules. News companies are concerned that the new directive is too vague.
(CBS Broadcasting et al v. Sue Cobb et al; Media Counsel: Dave Tomlin, The Associated Press, New York) — HS