updated 10/11/2006 6:52:54 PM ET 2006-10-11T22:52:54

A Florida law that bars exit polling near voting places violates the press' rights under the First Amendment, a lawsuit filed by The Associated Press and five television networks alleges.

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The lawsuits filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Miami and today in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas contend that state laws that prohibit asking a voter a "fact" or "opinion" within 100 feet of a polling place is unconstitutional.

"We're asking the court to ensure they can talk to voters in Florida on Election Day within a reasonable distance from polling places," said Susan Buckley, the attorney representing the news organizations.  While the lawsuit is pending, Buckley says the group also wants an injunction preventing enforcement of the laws during the upcoming elections.

The lawsuit names Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb and Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor Lester Sola, as a representative of all county elections supervisors in Florida, as defendants.

Cobb spokeswoman Jenny Nash said she could not comment because she had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit. A message left after hours at Sola's office was not returned.

2006 key racesThe AP and the five television networks - ABC, CNN, CBS, Fox News and NBC - formed a consortium to collect exit-polling data in Florida and other states.

They contend that conducting exit polls farther from voting places breaks down the statistical accuracy of their polls. Data about voter behavior becomes unreliable because voters are more likely to leave the area or blend into a crowd of nonvoters, the lawsuit states.

Exit polls were conducted within 100 feet of Florida polling places in the 2004 election without complaints from election officials, according to the lawsuit.

The news organizations had also challenged a 2004 directive by Ohio's elections chief against exit polling within 100 feet of a voting place. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson ruled the verbal order by Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell before the 2004 presidential election violated the press' rights under the First Amendment.

A federal judge ruled in 1988 that a Florida law prohibiting exit polling within 150 feet of polling places was unconstitutional. The law was subsequently amended to allow exit polling from any distance from a voting place, so long as it was clearly identified and did not obstruct voter access.

Secretary of State Dean Heller, who is named in the suit, said: "The last thing I want is someone walking through a gantlet of people immediately after they have pushed the voting button."

Nevada election laws have for decades included provisions aimed at preventing partisan activity near polling sites. Under state law, it is illegal "for any person to solicit a vote or to speak to a voter on the subject of marking his ballot" within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling site.

Exit polls were conducted within 100 feet of polling places in the 2004 election without incident or complaints from election officials, according to the lawsuit.

Heller's office, responding to the news organizations' inquiries, said Sept. 29 that exit polling within 100 feet of polling places would be a misdemeanor violation of the law.

The five news organizations prevailed last month in a challenge against a 2004 directive in Ohio against exit polling within 100 feet of a voting place. A lawsuit filed last month in Florida challenges a similar law in that state.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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