Opinions and scruples

Don’t ban opinion polls. If polling industry cares about sustainability, it will adopt best practices.

Updated: February 28, 2014 12:01 am

Don’t ban opinion polls. If polling industry cares about sustainability, it will adopt best practices.

After a recent sting operation that showed a clutch of polling agencies cutting deals to manipulate their findings, there has been renewed talk of banning opinion polls. The Congress has asked for a ban, the AAP has called for strict monitoring, and the Election Commission has left the decision to the government.

Many countries disallow opinion polling for a few days before voting. Exit polls have already been stopped in India because it is held to affect voter perceptions and intentions, and the EC has tried unsuccessfully in the past to put an end to pre-campaign surveys as well.

There may be reasons for parties to worry about the ways in which polls meant to measure opinion could end up moulding it. It has been suggested that those who vote tactically may end up choosing a party declared winnable, even if their first choice is different. For smaller parties, this could decisively foil their chances in a many-sided contest.

While this “bandwagon effect” of a party’s perceived high chances snowballing into a bigger success has been extensively studied, the science on it is still fuzzy — it is not clear at what point the momentum picks up and tips the outcome, and results depend on the electoral system. It can also work the other way — the perception of a party’s unstoppable victory can compel some voters to show up and support the “underdog” party. But opinion polls that sincerely attempt to map the popular mood should not be banned because of a few unscrupulous agencies.

Some argue that opinion polls, by presenting themselves as purveyors of truth, are more misleading than arguments or reports that can be unpacked by sceptical readers. Opinion polls present a facade of scientific accuracy, and their methods cannot be easily countered by most readers. But the point is, bad information has a right to circulate too. It must be rejected by the market, by media outlets that value credibility.

Opinion polling agencies that disclose their sampling methods, their margins of error in terms of both seat and vote-share, and are open about their calculus, will inspire greater confidence. If the polling industry cares about its own long-term sustainability, it must instil these practices. If not, opinion polls will become just a costly diversion for media outlets, and will be ultimately ignored as untrustworthy by consumers.

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