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Fla. Scraps Exit Poll Law; Ohio May Follow

A federal judge on Tuesday threw out a Florida law that prohibits exit polling within 100 feet of a voting place, finding there was no evidence that such surveys were disruptive or threatened access to voting.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, a media coalition argued in a lawsuit that the state's new guidelines on conducting exit polls, written after a judge threw out the old rules, are vague and confusing and should be rejected.

U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck said Florida's law was unconstitutional and ordered state officials not to enforce it in the Nov. 7 election. He left intact the 100-foot limit for other activities such as distributing campaign material or peddling.

The ruling came on a lawsuit brought by The Associated Press and five television networks that want to conduct exit polls at about 40 Florida polling places next month.

The 2005 law, the judge concluded, violates the First Amendment's free speech and freedom of the press protections. The judge also said the law was too broad.

The AP and five networks — CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox — have jointly conducted exit polls during numerous elections, using the results to project winners in key races, as well as analyze political and social trends.

"It's the result we expected, but we're still thrilled," said Dave Tomlin, AP's associate general counsel.

Florida State Department spokeswoman Jenny Nash said elections officials were pleased that Huck did not strike down the entire law. She said no decision had been made on whether the exit polling aspect would be appealed.

"Order at the polls was really the intent. This decision works out well for everyone," Nash said.

At a hearing last week, news media attorneys argued that the 100-foot limit would interfere with exit polling by making it more difficult to approach voters, harming the poll's accuracy.

Attorneys for the state contended that the law was enacted to encourage voters to go to the polls by making it a pleasant experience. Many voters, they said, feel that they are "running the gauntlet" because of harassment.

Huck, however, agreed with the news media's argument that such polling was not disruptive, noting exit polling was cited in none of about 5,000 recent complaints filed by voters about harassment at the polls.

In Ohio, the same news media coalition asked U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson to spell out exit polling rules for county election boards in his own words and force Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to post them so the plaintiffs can interview voters leaving polling places.

The judge last month had ordered the state to produce a new directive when he struck down Blackwell's 2004 order against exit polling within 100 feet of a voting place. Watson granted a temporary order suspending the 2004 order, allowing exit polling that year.

The lawsuit filed Monday says Blackwell's latest guidelines, issued Oct. 13, begin by stating that loitering and delaying voters are prohibited and only later say that the judge specifically allowed exit polling.

"Given the whole history of the case, how this directive issued on Oct. 13 was written essentially frustrates the entire purpose of the case from the beginning, which was to clear up the matter of whether the exit polling could take place," said attorney Richard Goehler, representing the news organizations.

James Lee, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said language from Watson's ruling is contained word for word in the directive and should be clear to election boards.