California voters, hopping mad because the television networks and then the president himself "gave away" the election before their polls closed last week, may even things up by voting on Monday night in November 1984.
California Secretary of State March Fong Ew estimates that between 3 and 5 percent of California's voters decided to stay home when projections of a Reagan landslide began pouring across the nation's time zones almost three hours before West Coast polls closed last Tuesday.
Election officials in other far western states, where the polls close three hours later than those in eastern states, are less specific and less certain of the impact.
But almost all are telling tales of election precincts that were empty by the dinner hour last Tuesday, of voting lines that broke up and disappeared after President Carter's concession speech more than an hour before the polls closed and of voters so angry they clogged election night switchboards with complaints that "there oughta be a law" against hearing the election is over before they have voted.
California, a state that normally thinks it is ahead of everybody else, may just do something about it.
Ew plans to try to change state law next month with a proposal that would open California polls for three or four hours on Monday night, close them again overnight and reopen them again on Tuesday until the eastern states stop voting.
State Sen. Barry Keene, a Eureka Democrat who heads the Senate elections and reapportionment committee in Sacramento, said yesterday he plans to get behind the proposal, even if there "is a certain awkwardness to it," and that the election night experience was so sour in California that the bill's chances of passage are "fairly good."
The atmosphere in some California voting areas, Keene said, turned "deathly silent" after the landslide projections began moving across the air waves and then turned "just plain funereal" after Carter conceded. He and other western Democrats were blaming dozens of narrow losses by local Democratic politicians on the combined effect of the television projections and the Carter concession.
Only in California did election officials make any attempt to quantify the voter falloff.
Anthony Miller, chief counsel to the California secretary of state, said Ew's staff monitored voter turnout throughout the day. Until about 5 o'clock, Miller said, the turnout was running at a pace that would have meant a final figure of between 79 and 81 percent.With the late-day dropoff, the final California turnout figure was 76.3 percent, Miller said.
Oregon's director of elections, Ray Phelps, said his office has no way of determining whether the vote declined late in the day or how sharply it fell off.
"I'll never be in a position to quantify it," Phelps said. "But everyone I talk to saw people walking away from the polls and I saw them walking away myself."
Don White, Washington state supervisor of elections, heard the same reports but he is a "little skeptical" that large numbers of Washingtonians stayed away because of the reports from the East.
"In our state it is a very normal presidential-election pattern to have a heavy vote during the day and a light vote at night," White said. "Frankly, I think that is because people want to be home to watch the early returns on television."
For years westerners have complained about television network projections and western Democrats have worried that late-day voter falloff cuts deeply into the traditional Democratic lunch-basket vote that heads to the polls after work. With the combination of the landslide projections and Carter's concession, the complaints turned to a howl this year.
"I don't think it had much impact in our area," said Jim Lloyd, the chief elections officer in Nez Perce County, a portion of Idaho in the Pacific Time Zone. "Our Senate race kept people coming to the polls. But I'll tell you folks were mad, demned mad, when they heard the presidential election was over, even heard it from the president, before they voted."
In California, Miller said the secretary of state's office not only would push a state law but was asking its congressional delegation to seek a federal law that would close all polls at the same time -- and allow westerners to do their evening voting on Monday from now on.
Not all western election officials were excited about the idea. In Washington, White said the cost of elections would skyrocket if he had to provide overnight security for Monday's ballots and bring his election crews in for two shifts. He said that half the cost of an election in his state comes from manning the polls.
"All of us out here would like to see an answer to the problem," White said, "but we ned a solution that is commensurate to the problem. What would you do in a state like Alaska that has five time zones? This country stretches from the tip of the Aleutian chain to Bangor, Maine. We'll have people voting at all kinds of weird hours if we try to make it uniform."