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Would it be legal for the federal government of the United States to introduce a law, with words to the effect of:

"No results of any congressional, senatorial, or presidential election may be announced until polls have closed in all participating states."

Whilst I believe the conduct of the elections is in near complete control of the state, would this extend to announcement of the results?

The rationale behind this law would be to prevent announcing earlier results in an attempt to influence later voters - for instance apparently the first polls will close at 1800 Eastern Time in Indiana and Kentucky, at which time some voters in Alaska will apparently still have 7 additional hours to cast their ballot. A similar provision applies in European Parliamentary elections, where votes are not permitted to be counted until Sunday, when the final polls close.

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    To clarify, you're asking about the Federal government passing a law binding the State election offices, right? – divibisan Oct 29 at 15:23
  • Sounds right - assuming they are the institution responsible for officially announcing / certifying results. – Neil Tarrant Oct 29 at 15:26
  • I could be wrong but I don't think any state is able to announce official results that fast because of mail in ballots (even under normal time) and other issues. However they won't be able to make a law preventing the media and other sources from announcing an expected winner. – Joe W Oct 29 at 15:34
  • @JoeW Announcing partial or interim results (which I think happens in the USA?), say without postal ballot could also have an influence. – Neil Tarrant Oct 29 at 15:39
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    Note that Senatorial races and Congressional races are only within the state anyway. This would only really apply to presidential races. – Chipster Oct 29 at 18:58
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Federal-level elections in the US are a state matter. Every state does their own election according to their own laws. But there is precedent for the federal government to regulate the states in this regards, like with the voting rights act of 1965.

One possible constitutional challenge to such a law could be that prohibiting people from talking about the election results could be interpreted as a violation of freedom of speech. There is also the question if such a law is even enforceable in the Internet age. There are lots of people involved in counting and tallying the results (for good reason - the more people you have involved in the counting process, the harder it gets to falsify the results) and any of them could anonymously leak that information on the Internet or to the media.

But another thing the federal government could do is prohibit the states from starting to count the ballots until the last polling station has closed. There are several countries in the world where this is common practice to avoid this problem.

But in those countries where it is common practice, it often doesn't help much due to a different problem: Exit polls. Every media outlet in the country wants to be the first to report the election results. So what they do is send people to the polling stations who ask voters leaving the station how they voted. These polls often provide numbers which are very close to the official voting results, even before the first ballot box was opened. This would be very hard to prevent in a country like the United States where you have such strong protection of freedom of speech and freedom of press.

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    Another example is the law passed by Congress in 1845 that made the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November be the nationwide Election Day. This was driven in part by technology. The law before that was to hold federal elections in a 34 day period prior to the first Wednesday in December. The development of the telegraph gave early voting states the ability to influence results in later voting states. – David Hammen Oct 29 at 17:00
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    "One possible constitutional challenge to such a law could be that prohibiting people from talking about the election results could be interpreted as a violation of freedom of speech." I understand it to be a restriction on the release of the information, not on discussing information that has been released. It's not a violation of free speech to restrict the government from releasing information. – Acccumulation Oct 29 at 22:24
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    "Federal-level elections in the US are a state matter. " - I love your phrasing in this sentence. A beautiful example of either the checks-and-balances of the American political system, or the contradictions inherent to it. – Neil Tarrant Oct 30 at 13:20
  • "There is also the question if such a law is even enforceable in the Internet age" actually I know of people who would just call their friends who are counting votes if they are anxiously waiting for results and would like an inside opinion. No internet required. – Nobody Oct 30 at 14:12
  • Freedom of speech may be restricted in the service of a compelling government interest under certain conditions. A well crafted law would probably survive a constitutional challenge. But such a law is unnecessary because media voluntarily refrain from reporting exit polling until the last polls have closed. – phoog Nov 1 at 19:00
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No results of any congressional, senatorial, or presidential election may be announced until polls have closed in all participating states.

That might well be unconstitutional. The Constitution relegates control of federal-level elections to the states. What might be constitutional is a law that states that

All federal subsidies to states pertaining to elections shall be withheld from states that release federal election results before polls have closed in all participating states.

The federal government has used withholding funds it nominally provides to states as a way of getting around what would otherwise be consitutional limitations.

Another possibility would be the ongoing state-level effort to make the Electoral College meaningless, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Those states could add a clause to the compact to withhold election results in each state until all polls in the signatory states have ended. And then invite Alaska to join to compact.

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  • The federal government regulates federal elections in other ways without resorting to the power of the purse. There's no reason to think that this restriction would be unconstitutional. – phoog Nov 1 at 19:11
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Such a law would be pretty hard to square with the First Amendment. It is highly unlikely that the courts would allow the government to limit what journalists were allowed to report. Someone might make a case that there is a compelling public interest in preventing publication and cause some justice to create a balancing test that would allow such a law but such a decision would be unprecedented.

If you wanted to prevent results from early states from being published, you would realistically need to convince the national networks to hold off publishing the voting data they receive until after the last polls close. They already voluntarily hold off on calling individual states until after that state's polls close (though periodically there are mistakes such as 2000 when Florida was called before the Central time zone counties had finished voting). It is conceivable that they could be convinced to hold off until all states finished voting particularly if mail-in ballots become more common and networks worry about the "blue shift" where Republican candidates are ahead based on the results of in-person ballots while additional Democratic ballots arrive after Election Day.

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    Journalists cannot report what they do not know. The western part of Florida is in the Central Time Zone. Polls close in most of Florida an hour before they close in western Florida. Florida requires local election officials to refrain from releasing election results until polls have closed in western Florida. The penalties for premature release are severe. Florida will start counting mail-in ballots on November 2 this year. Election officials who release that information are subject to even more severe penalties. IIRC, it is a felony. – David Hammen Oct 29 at 16:48
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    @DavidHammen - It is a fact that in 2000, the Voter News Service called Florida for Gore prior to polls closing in the Florida panhandle. That was based on exit polls and early voting results. Perhaps the laws have changed in the last 20 years and early voting results can no longer be disclosed or perhaps officials released some data early on accident 20 years ago. Regardless, it is still perfectly legal for the major networks to call a state before the polls close based solely on polling data. It is something that they decline to do out of a sense of civic duty. – Justin Cave Oct 29 at 17:10
  • Because Florida is starting to count mail-in ballots a day before Election Day this year, Florida has made it a felony for an election official to disclose the results of the early voting before polls close statewide. – David Hammen Oct 29 at 17:17
  • @DavidHammen I think you are confusing official results and numbers from the states and the numbers that the media gets from polling. – Joe W Oct 29 at 17:20
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    @DavidHammen - Ah, the sloppiness of language. It could also be reasonably argued that "official" results become official when the state certifies the election results. " Certification is the process by which the results of an election are made official." in Florida that date is set at 14 days after election day, in this year that would be Nov 17th dos.myflorida.com/media/703440/… – BobE Oct 29 at 18:42
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If you're really suggesting no political parties, media or independent observers should be allowed to publish running exit counts, please say so.

Can the feds influence when ballot totals are announced isn’t at all the same Question as whether it would be legal to introduce a law, with words to the effect of "No results of any… election may be announced until all polls have closed" or whatever else. Which are you Asking about?

If you’re suggesting ”No results of any election may be officially announced until all polls have closed" then if that’s not how it is now, who doubts it should be?

How could you or I or anyone distinguish “an attempt to influence later voters” from a simple desire to report the results so far?

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  • By the way, why not look at Tuesday's actual results, in terms both of votes cast and of laws invoked? – Robbie Goodwin Nov 5 at 2:49

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