After Media Pressure, Federal Judge Suspends Ban on Exit Polling

By: Exit pollsters and journalists can continue to approach voters near polling sites in New Jersey after a federal judge suspended a state high court ruling to ban the practice within 100 feet of voting sites.

The Oct. 23 ruling comes in response to a challenge by the National Election Pool ? a consortium of news-media groups that includes the Associated Press, CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS ? which use Election Day polling to gauge the mood and attitudes of the nation.

In granting a preliminary injunction less than two weeks before the state's Nov. 3 gubernatorial election, U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan put on hold a Sept. 30 state Supreme Court decision to bar exit polling and all "expressive activity" within 100 feet of polling places. If upheld, the state high court?s ruling would have made New Jersey the only state to require exit pollsters and journalists to approach voters from a distance.

"There is simply no evidence that exit polling has ever led to disorderly conduct at polling places," Sheridan said in his ruling.

The news organizations argued that exit polling is constitutionally protected. Federal courts have struck down similar attempts in other states.

"By permitting these important newsgathering activities to continue, Judge Sheridan has ensured that the public will continue to receive the timely and valuable information gathered from exit polls," said NEP attorney Susan Buckley.

Polling experts say instituting a buffer zone would mean error rates for exit polls would be much higher because interviewers are supposed to approach voters in a preset pattern, such as every fourth voter. As the distance from polling places increases, experts say, so does the likelihood that voters get into their car without being approached or blend into a crowd that includes people who didn't vote.

The New Jersey high court had found the buffer zone was a reasonable restriction of free speech because all activity was banned within the 100-foot perimeter. The court noted that political speech is protected by the First Amendment but can be barred near a polling station to protect the right to vote.

"The last 100 feet leading to a polling place belong to the voters on Election Day," the court wrote.

But Sheridan said the news-media groups, under the First Amendment, "have a protected interest in reporting the news to the public."


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