Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert
September 20, 2001
Vol. 6; No. 6
Contact: Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman
firstname.lastname@example.org or 406/542-4400.
The presidential election of 2000 taught the United States some valuable lessons about the methods Americans use to vote and way those votes are tabulated. It also offered important lessons in civics and the relationships between branches of government and between the individual states and the republic. Now, the country has concrete recommendations for changes in our electoral system from the bi-partisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform.
Of the 13 policy recommendations offered by the commission, journalists and First Amendment advocates should pay special attention to No. 10:
“News organizations should not project any presidential election results in any state so long as polls remain open elsewhere in the 48 contiguous states. If necessary, Congress and the states should consider legislation, within First Amendment limits, to protect the integrity of the electoral process.”
The report outlines four potential courses of action, including:
1. News organizations could voluntarily refrain from projecting presidential outcomes in any state until 11:00 p.m. Eastern time.
2. If broadcasters do not exercise voluntary restraint, Congress and the states could prohibit any public disclosure of presidential results by government entities at any level until 11:00 p.m. Eastern time.
While it is conceivable (if unlikely) that news organizations might agree to the first proposal, the second raises serious concerns about access to public information and should come to the attention of all journalists and First Amendment supporters.
The commission’s full 114-page report may be accessed and downloaded via the Internet at http://reformelections.org. Comments also may be made at that location.
Beyond the recommendations, please read the dissenting comments on Policy Recommendation No. 10 (Point 2) by longtime Nashville Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler and former U.S. attorney general Griffin Bell. Both Seigenthaler and Bell served on the commission and both argue against Congressional prohibitions on the release of election results.