Elections, Media and Communications

Reading election polls: To be misled or to be empowered?

Our past experience about elections in Sri Lanka confirms that there was hardly anything that parties and candidates did not exploit for their advantage. In the eve of elections, the incumbents in high postings often remembers to offer government jobs, pay hikes to the people who they think are their potential voter bases. Since independence every party and its candidates exploited the government’s food-rations and other welfare programmes shamelessly to expand their voter bases. In addition, parties always try to make an impression that they are certainly winning the upcoming election assuming that the victory vibes would attract the ‘floating voters’ towards them. Therefore, during the election campaigns it is quite normal to see astrological predictions or comments in support of particular candidate or a party.  One of the latest instruments that politician used to indicate their victory is the election polls. During the 2000, 2001, 2004, and 2005 election campaigns, politicians and parties exploited pollings to mislead people for their electoral benefits. Therefore, in this article intend to educate Sri Lankan readers about the role polls play in elections and how one could distinguish good polls from bad ones.

What is an opinion poll?

An opinion poll measures the direction and intensity of public opinion which is often highly unpredictable. Hence, opinion pollings are extensively used across the world to ascertain the public support, trust, perceptions on numerous issues. This culture of assessing public opinion is not a new phenomenon.  In the past Monarchs consulted ‘Pundits’ to learn about what people think about their regime or decisions. Or in some instances rulers use their spies to learn what the public thinks about the regime. However, the inherent problem in all those methods was that the accuracy of the knowledge that rulers receives. These techniques are highly depended on the capacity and integrity of those experts or the spies who collect information. Hence, once the public opinion polling was found, these indigenous methods quickly disappeared. In this information era, the destiny of ruler is highly reliant on the precision of the information they possess. However, the history of the public polling is not a very long one. The public polling became popular in the early 1930s in USA, especially since pollsters began to predict the US election with greater precision. Polling came into the Sri Lankan political scene much later. Nevertheless, as some media agencies managed to utilise them as an entertaining instrument ( in reality shows and SMS polls), various agencies, sometime even those who do not understand basics of public opinion polling technology began to conduct opinion polls.

Conducting an opinion poll is a science. From the point of conceptualization to the point of reporting, the results, the process will be guided by a rigours research methodology. An opinion poll provides a general opinion of the country or a certain population using the opinion to ascertain from sample. Since pollsters employ rigorous sampling techniques in selecting their samples, the results of such polls can be inferred to reflect the opinion of a certain population or the country. They use questionnaires to interview the respondents and those questions are carefully designed using the survey research methods. A good pollster must spend time and resources to train the field researchers who interview the selected respondents.  When data collection (or interviews) is completed, pollsters use statistical analysis techniques to analyze the data. In developed countries various modern methods such as telephones, e-mails and the Internet are used to conduct interviews. However, in Sri Lanka, pollsters have to rely on expensive and time consuming, inter-personal interviews (Face-to-Face) due to the lack of necessary infrastructure for those new techniques. A poll conducted by an experience pollster by employing necessary techniques and technology is one that could be considered a good poll.

Role of opinion polls in elections

First and foremost, opinion polls encourage wider public participation in elections as they provide a channel through which the public can express their opinion on the matters concerning. Secondly, polls provide valuable knowledge to the parties and their candidates about public opinion.  This will be a priceless piece of feedback for politicians on their policies that are espoused in their election campaigns and importantly. Therefore, polling empowers the public as well as parties and their candidates. In addition, TV channels and all media agencies are also direct beneficiaries of these election polls. In run up to elections, in most of the countries, media agencies commission opinion polls to learn about the verdict of the voters and their issues and preferences, because, these results assist the media to attract more audience by producing their election related programmes with poll results. There are secret beneficiaries of these polling that we hardly discuss about; the party funders and various lobbying groups who are essentially looking for high return for their investments are few to be named.  The most salient factor that I see in election polling is its capacity to influence the election campaigns to focus on issues instead of rhetoric and violence.

Can polls be harmful to the election process?

There were instances where Pre-election Polls and Exit Polls were banned or brought under Government control in some countries. However, in most of these instances, pollsters managed to get a fair verdict from their respective courts. Some countries have introduced regulations and guidelines for polling agencies in order to prevent any adverse effects on the election process. Even in Sri Lanka, according election law, publishing election polls during the last week before the election is prohibited.

The most famous argument against opinion polls on elections is that poll results can influence the decision of the voters in favour of the leading candidate or party. Technically we call this the “Bandwagon effect”. Some elites argue that the undecided vote can swing in favour of the candidate who runs as the ‘number one’ in the race. However, pollsters argue that in the same way, sympathy votes might swing in favour of the loser (“Underdog effect”) at the same time and balance off each effect.

Can opinion polls play foul?

However, not all public opinion polls seem to be guided by good and professional motives, because, especially during the elections, there are numerous polling reports appear on media and suggest contradictory results. For example, during the 2004 and 2005 elections there were many such contradictory election polling results released by the media agencies close to two main political parties. Once the official election result was out, we found out that those polls were just to mislead the public for their own political advantages.   Hence, those polling neither empower votes nor the politicians and their parties but they only serve the purpose of cheap political propaganda of the bankrupt politicians.

These opinion polls that are aiming to fulfil political agendas do not follow scientific methods. Some of those polls are doctored in the media studios instead of conducting interviews with general public.  There were instances where parties have conducted polls amongst their party loyalists and in their strongholds to show that they are leading the election race. Sometimes, interested groups also could use these types of polls to persuade the state that the majority of the country supports their cause. There were incidents in the past, where some polls were misleading not because the agency that conducted the poll deliberately aimed to support a particular party but because of their sheer incompetence on the polling technology. Therefore, those polls also should be considered as bad polls as they too mislead the public as the end result.

In the next few weeks to come, there will be numerous election poll results appearing in the news media, It is upto each of us to decide if to treat them seriously or not. Therefore, it is very important that the reader differentiates scientific polls from non-scientific ones. This is not a unique challenge that Sri Lankan opinion poll users face, but it is quite universal. Pollsters are well aware of their vulnerability to be exploited by various sections.  Therefore, there is a code of professional ethics and practices for pollsters that are issued by the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR). These ethics prescribe the standards, minimal disclosure in the publication of poll results. With this information, readers can judge the quality of the poll that they refer.

Things one should look for before starting to read the findings:

Pollsters have a professional obligation to reveal the sponsor of the Poll, the exact wording of questions asked, a definition of the study-population, sampling procedure, size of the sample, sampling error and the method, location and dates of data collection in their publication of results. From this minimal information the reader can make a fair judgment of the accuracy of the poll findings that he or she reads.

A scientifically conducted poll does not mean that the findings of these polls should be taken uncontested. In this case, the credibility of the pollsters is important to judge the neutrality of the study. Disclosing the sponsor and the objectives are crucial to find out about the motive behind the study. Size of the sample, sampling procedure and areas covered in the study assist to find out whether poll is scientific or non-scientific one or whether it contains biases.

The dates of the data collection period is very important too. Otherwise, readers will not have any idea whether what he or she reads has any relevance to the current context. Professional pollsters usually provide something called the “Margin of error”. This means the degree to which the poll results can differ from the actual situation due to the selection of the sample. However, one should not be under any illusions that the margin of error is the only error that a poll result is subject to. There could be many errors due to the wording of the questionnaire, problems of field interviewers when collecting data etc. However, an experienced pollster knows how to minimize these human errors in his study.

However, most of the time, laymen do not have access to original Opinion Polling reports and they get to know the results of polls through newspapers or from electronic media. In this context, journalists have a great responsibility to inquire those minimal details before they decide publicise them in their respective media.  In addition, when publishing the poll results journalists also should take care to publish the essential technical details for readers to make their own judgment about the seriousness of these results.

In essence, polling is undoubtedly an instrument of empowerment as long as it is conducted scientifically by adhering to professional ethics and is published for public consumption. Therefore, we must welcome frequent opinion polling in the media and as readers, we must learn how to distinguish good polls from bad ones for empowering instead of misleading the public.

Pradeep Peiris is a pollster and he heads the Social Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.