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High school was a long time ago for me but I seem to remember my history/government teacher saying the news media wasn't allowed to report vote counts in presidential elections since reporting the results prematurely could disenfranchise some voters.

If I remember correctly, the event in history went something like this: precincts or states who started reporting their results early or reported throughout the day affected people who hadn't voted yet because they saw their candidate was losing and then decided why bother voting since their candidate was losing by a landslide and thus may have affected the election.

The reason they didn't vote earlier was a mix of reasons like they were in a later time zone, they had to work so by the time they got off work, there was still 2-3 hrs to vote but due to the earlier reporting, they decided not to, etc.

This question was triggered b/c I'm on the west coast but I saw CNN earlier today display the vote count in Kentucky for the presidential race and I thought that was very strange since it was about 1530PST/1830EST at the time. The polls haven't closed yet for either time zone.

  • Regarding your last point, most polls in Kentucky closed at 1800 EST, so they were already closed when you saw those initial results. – Geobits Nov 9 '16 at 2:17
  • @Geobits, i stand corrected then =) – Classified Nov 9 '16 at 3:23
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State and local election officials across the United States have a practice of releasing vote tallies as soon as they are available and many jurisdictions invite representatives from the news media and other interested parties to observe the vote-counting process. For example, Arizona Title 16, Section 622 states:

At any time following the close of the polls, except as provided in section 16-551, subsection C, unofficial returns may be released during the counting of the ballots by vote tabulating equipment, and upon completion of the count the unofficial results shall be open to the public.

Most modern voting jurisdictions in the United States post their unofficial results online immediately. Local results are also forwarded to the state election authority, which also generally posts the aggregated totals as cities and counties submit their results. In the modern era, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep results from being disseminated via email or social media, let alone traditional television and online news outlets.

There are no controlling federal regulations on this issue, though issuing projections about the outcome of the presidential election has been an issue since the 1960s, according to this article in the Yale Law and Policy Review from 1984.

One of the noteworthy complaints was that NBC's early projections of a Ronald Reagan landslide -- based on exit polling -- in the 1980 election discouraged voters who would otherwise have vote for Jimmy Carter.

After pressure from Congress, in 1985 the three major networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) agreed not to characterize election results based on exit polling before the polls were closed.

In 1992, more than 150 members of Congress signed a letter to the presidents of the three networks asking them not to project a winner until polls had closed in the western states (Washington Post). CBS vice president Joe Peyronnin is quoted as saying it would not be appropriate for the networks to withhold the results of electoral college tallies based on publicly released information and suggested Congress could remedy the matter by setting a uniform time for poll closings.

In 1990, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, the Associated Press and the Republican and Democratic parties formed the Voter News Service to consolidate their exit polling efforts (Wikipedia). In the 2000 election, the networks that used the results of this exit polling consortium to make the early and flawed call of Al Gore winning Florida and delayed calls of George Bush winning other states drew criticism about potential voter discouragement -- notably from Republicans. The consortium was disbanded in 2003 following similar complaints.

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