Freedom of the press demands polls at the polls

Another law that made people feel good – but limited freedom and addressed a problem that never existed – has been disposed of. This time, it was a Florida law that demanded exit polling take place only from a distance.

Florida had passed the law in order to make voting a more pleasant experience. According to the law’s defenders, some voters complained they felt they were “running the gauntlet” due to all of the exit polling, solicitations and other “harassments” voters experienced in the aftermath of performing their civic duty.

“Attorneys for the state contended that the law was enacted to encourage voters to go to the polls by making it a pleasant experience,” according to an Associated Press report. Of course, exit polling by the press is constitutionally guaranteed. Feeling good is not.

That’s the essential message of Judge Paul C. Huck, who ruled on the law Tuesday in response to a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, which intends to conduct exit polling at about 40 polling locations throughout Florida on Election Day. Huck told Florida it could not constitutionally enforce the law, which prohibited exit polling within 100 feet of polls.

Not only did Huck say the law “impermissibly proscribes constitutionally protected exit polling,” but also that the law did not address the concerns it was meant to address at all.

The state, defending the law it passed less than a year ago, “failed to provide any meaningful evidence that exit polling has any history of leading to voter intimidation, impeding voter access to the polls or encouraging election fraud,” Huck said.

The Florida State Department was left with a husk of the original law after Huck’s order, which maintains the 100-foot restriction on political campaigners and solicitors from polling sites. Florida State Department spokesperson Jenny Nash was left conceding defeat, forced to be appreciative of the fact that Huck didn’t strike down the law entirely.

Attorneys for the press had argued the 100-foot restriction would interfere in exit polls and negatively affect their accuracy. Considering that exit polls are generally done by a single person who asks voters to voluntarily fill out a form, it’s hard to understand why the practice was ever considered a “harassment.”

Florida’s state government – as well as its citizens – should learn from this decision. It’s more important to be free than to be comfortable, and constitutional guarantees will always be more important than preventing minor nuisances. It is, after all, quite simple to merely say, “No.”