Florida voting experts outraged by plan for early projections of winners

Florida elections officials are decrying an effort to project winners and losers before polls close, saying that it will depress voting turnout.  [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Florida elections officials are decrying an effort to project winners and losers before polls close, saying that it will depress voting turnout. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Sept. 13, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — An effort to project election winners and losers in Florida and other key states while people are still voting in November is provoking criticism and questions from experts across the state.

University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald said the idea is fraught with risks and is bad for democracy.

"It's abhorrent, and it's a disservice to voters," McDonald told the Times/Herald. "All of the people will not have voted yet, and they need to have their voices heard."

A group of California entrepreneurs and the online news site Slate have announced plans to project likely results of races for president and U.S. Senate in seven states, including Florida, starting at 6 a.m. Eastern time on Nov. 8, Election Day.

The venture, as reported by the New York Times, involves a Silicon Valley startup, VoteCastr, that will project results based on who has already voted, the same technique that campaign "war rooms" use.

News outlets such as CNN routinely conduct exit polls of voters at polling stations on Election Day to collect extensive information about why voters made their choices. But the results are not broadcast or published until after polls close, a practice that Slate's editor in chief, Julia Turner, describes as a "news blackout" that must end.

Turner said that Slate and VoteCastr will analyze turnout to project "the likely outcome of the election" and that voters deserve to know how the election is going "in real time."

"As things stand, journalists on Election Day act against their instincts, colluding to keep readers in the dark," Turner wrote. "We won't be calling Florida for Hillary at 11 a.m., or calling any states at all. We'll simply be taking the unprecedented step of showing you Election Day as the insiders see it."

But in a state where the race for the White House was decided by 537 votes in 2000, any talk of predicting election outcomes is met with skepticism and hostility.

McDonald said voters who hear projections that their candidate is way ahead or behind will simply stay home.

The UF professor has done extensive research on voting patterns and said data from past elections in Florida shows that Republicans prefer to vote by mail, that Democrats prefer to vote at early-voting sites, and the people who show up to vote on Election Day are about equal between the two major parties.

"I'm worried about their model — especially in an unusual election like this one," McDonald said, referring to the volatile nature of the 2016 campaign.

McDonald also said that VoteCastr and Slate can't gain access to most detailed information on who's voting by mail. By law in Florida, specific information on those voters is available only to candidates, political parties and political committees.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley called the idea "stupid" and "tacky" and said it could reduce turnout.

"People will think, 'Why should I vote when they're already calling it?' " Corley said. "Nothing good can come of this."

Corley said the media's credibility will suffer further if a projection turns out to be wrong.

"I think of three words: 'Dewey Defeats Truman,' " Corley said in reference to the iconic and incorrect 1948 Chicago Tribune headline.

Not all elections officials, though, think it's a bad idea.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said projections of election results seem no different from polls.

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said it's important that voters discern the difference between projections and results.

"They're not seeing any counting of votes," Latimer said of Slate. "That's what we do."

At least 9 million Florida voters are expected to cast ballots for president in November based on a projection of a turnout of 75 percent.

Voting will begin in earnest in the first week of October, when millions of Floridians will get ballots in the mail.

Florida's voting period will last for five weeks. More than half of all votes will likely be cast by the time polls open on Nov. 8.

The state's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, couldn't be reached for comment.

Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless in Clay County, president of a statewide association of election officials, said anything that discourages people from voting is a troubling trend.

"Even if one voter doesn't vote, it's a terrible thing, in my opinion," Chambless said.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.