SAN FRANCISCO -- The West Coast was stunned by television's announcing a presidential winner long before its polls had closed, and the reaction of voters and election officials alike Wednesday was rage.
NBC declared Ronald Reagan the winner at 8:15 p.m. EST, nearly three hours before polls in states like California closed. President Carter conceded more than an hour before balloting there ended.
As a result, substantial numbers thought voting wasn't worth the trouble, and skipped it. The dropoff affected numerous congressional, state and local contests, and Democratic officials were angry with Carter.
'It was an insult to every voter in California,' Assemblyman Willie Brown of San Francisco said of Carter's concession. 'It was an indication of why he didn't gain the loyalty of the Democratic rank and file.'
Oregon election director Ray Phelps said he could not determine the effect but he said, 'I'm furious.'
California's top election official, Secretary of State March Fong Eu, said the events 'caused havoc' and in the last hours 'our turnout dropped to practically nothing.'
Dramatic dropoffs in voting during the last two hours were reported by polling officials throughout the far west.
But in Arizona, where a Reagan victory was a foregone conclusion, hot contests over a tax-cut measure and Sen. Barry Goldwater's seat kept voters lined up until the last minute.
Democrats generally assume that they are helped by a high turnout -- and injured by a low turnout -- and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said the TV projections hurt 'a host of candidates.'
But just how much they were hurt was unclear. Possibly, in some cases, more Republicans than Democrats might have decided to skip the whole business.
In California alone, a half dozen congressional and legislative races were decided by only a few hundred votes.
A notable number of late hour voters told reporters that they were switching to John Anderson, who needed 5 percent of the vote to qualify for federal campaign funds, or to minor party presidential candidates.
Interviews with voters showed universal dismay and frequent anger. In San Jose, Calif., one said 'I feel cheated,' another said 'it's unfair,' and a third, 'I feel like a second class citizen.'
In Corvallis, Ore, William Switzer, a social worker, said, 'Something is terribly wrong with this democracy if the networks can call the election and a president can concede before millions of Americans vote.'
Network television and radio stations said their switchboards were flooded by angry callers.
The media usually defend their early projections as their right and obligation under the First Amendment. They argue that in the modern world of communications, there is no way to keep the news secret.
California's secretary of state said she will seek a federal law that would prevent disclosure of East Coast election results until polling places in the West close. Either that, Mrs. Fong said, or all polling places in the continental United States should close at the same time.
But for all the frustration on the West Coast, a greater problem exists in Alaska and Hawaii. Their polls close two hours after California, and five hours after most in the East.