THERE ARE various proposals before Congress that would alter either the reporting of election returns, the day of voting, the polling hours across the nation -- or all of the above. The purpose would be to avoid a repeat of last fall's situation, when the announcement of Jimmy Carter's defeat discouraged people from voting for congressmen and others at the still-open polls in the far West. One idea -- a shift of Election Day to a Sunday, with nationally uniform voting times -- has attracted some attention, including modified support from former presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. Whether weekend voting hours would encourage or discourage turnout is anybody's guess; but as Mr. Nixon suggested, there may be serious objections from certain religious groups.

That said, there is nothing inherently sacred about the hours or even the days when polling places are open. In california, for example, some politicians have suggested that polls be open for a few hours on the evening before Election Day, then reopen in the morning with a closing time that could be synchronized with the eastern states. Obviously this plan would not be fully effective unless other western states changed their hours, too.

But this approach by the states is vastly preferable to any proposals that would prohibit reporting of results in early-closing states by election officials or the news media until everybody else had finished voting. Allowing state officials to suppress results could easily lead to fraud or vote-stealing; and voluntary suppression by the news media would be a practical impossibility.

Still wrose -- and unconstitutional, no doubt -- would be some convoluted federal law attempting to prohibit the broadcasting of election results or projections during certain hours. Imagine the circuitous ways that the networks would find to say, "And the winner is . . ."

One sure-fire way to eliminate the problem would be to enact a federal prohibition on landslide victories. Failing that, sensible initiatives should be taken by the states to coordinate their poll closings. The rest can be safely left in the perfectly good hands of free-thinking, independent American voters, who still are thoroughly capable of making their own political judgments.