- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2000

Republican lawmakers said yesterday they will investigate whether news-media projections that Vice President Al Gore won Florida deprived Gov. George W. Bush of votes and disenfranchised voters.
The congressmen were mainly concerned with the projections' effect in the Florida Panhandle. Voting behavior there from 1988 to 2000 shows the Republican vote rate was 4 percent lower than expected last week, according to an analysis by Yale University Law School senior research scholar John R. Lott Jr.
"That 4 percent in the Panhandle equates to nearly 10,000 votes in the counties of the Panhandle," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, citing the study during a Capitol Hill press conference to highlight the need for an oversight hearing.
As chairman of the Commerce Committee telecommunications subcommittee, Mr. Tauzin said last week he will conduct such hearings as early as December on the premature announcements that Mr. Gore was the Florida victor.
"If Mr. Lott's information is verified by actual evidence, perhaps as many as 10,000 Republican voters in the Panhandle were dissuaded from voting because of the early erroneous call of the state for Al Gore when those voters were still going to the polls in the Panhandle of Florida," Mr. Tauzin said.
About 7:50 p.m. EST on Election Day, less than an hour after many of the polls closed in Florida, both CBS and NBC declared Mr. Gore the winner in that state, a decision based largely upon exit polls conducted by Voter News Service.
Fox News, CNN and ABC followed shortly although polls in the Panhandle were still open.
Bush backers soon complained, saying early returns showed it was too tight to call. By 10 p.m., most networks reversed and said Florida was still undecided.
"Coverage of an election ought to be reporting the news, not making it. And when coverage of an election affects voter turnout and affects the result in a close race like this one, Democrats and Republicans have to be very careful that we make some changes so it doesn't happen again. We're going to try to do that," Mr. Tauzin said.
The committee is also collecting information from Voter News Service, which did the exit polls.
In another study, the Republican Leadership Council said yesterday it had commissioned a phone survey of 35,000 Panhandle voters in which 2,380 Bush supporters said they decided not to vote after hearing Mr. Gore had won.
Mr. Tauzin said his hearings also will look into whether bias colored the networks' calling the states for Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush.
"I think there is now a presumption of bias in the reporting, and that the networks will have a duty, when they do come before us in our hearing, to overcome that presumption," Mr. Tauzin said.
In nine states where Mr. Bush won by 6 percent or more, Voter News Service placed the outcome in a too-close-to-call category.
In no state that Al Gore won by 6 percent or more was there any delay in the call, Mr. Tauzin said. In nine states, including Alabama where Mr. Bush won by 15 percent, there were delays in the call.
"All of the networks cable and broadcasting effectively gave America the impression the George W. Bush states were too close to call, while the Al Gore states were falling in line for Al Gore in fact, rapidly calling them in every case with a margin of 6 percent or above," he said.
Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, said the raw data showing when states were called for each candidate "makes it plain that there was bias," but added what needs to be determined is whether the bias was intentional.
The top TV networks said yesterday they would review their procedures, but denied any bias.
CNN Chairman Tom Johnson, in two letters to Mr. Tauzin yesterday, said an independent panel would look into the network's election night coverage. He added that "as chairman of CNN, I state categorically there was no intentional bias in the election night reporting."
Su-Lin Nichols of ABC News said the network would make a "top-to-bottom review of our election night projections."
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said bias charges are "completely without foundation."
The Republican Committee for Honest Politics filed suit on behalf of Bay County voters Tuesday in Panama City, Fla. It is seeking an injunction against seven TV networks and the VNS, to prevent them from projecting future elections while polls are still open.
"They have damaged the right to vote, which is priceless," said Dan Perrin, committee director.
A spokeswoman in the Pensacola Supervisor of Elections Office said that typically the heaviest voting time there comes between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. However, poll workers reported an unusually low number of voters after 6 p.m.
Gayle Jacobson, an election clerk in Niceville, said, for example, that she did not realize the vote had been called for Mr. Gore while the polls were still open. But she said she noted that turnout was "significantly reduced."
"Typically, we have quite a rush between 5:30 and 7 p.m. because this is a high military area and people come in after work," Mrs. Jacobson explained. "We didn't have the expected turnout."
Election officials there predicted a 75 percent turnout, but instead saw only 54 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, said his office is receiving numerous constituent calls about the early media calls.
"Curt Whitehead just called this morning to let us know that he's one of those who didn't vote … because the networks had called the Florida election for Gore before the polls closed," Mr. Stearns said.
This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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