- An opinion poll, sometimes simply referred to as a poll, is a survey of public opinion from a particular sample.
- Opinion polls are usually designed to represent the opinions of a population by conducting a series of questions and then extrapolating generalities in ratio or within confidence intervals.
Need for opinion polls
- Systematic collection of public opinion is a must in modern democracies. Since elections are not a private act, citizens wish to, and need to, know how others are making up their mind. Survey based tracking of the mood of the electorate performs that crucial role.
- Scientific sample surveys of public opinions are one of the few ways in which the voice of the poor and the disadvantaged gets registered. All things considered, this is a better method to monitor the popular mood than anything else that exists.
- This creates a widespread need for this information among politicians, the media and people at large. That is why opinion polls and their use to track the electoral race are here to stay.
Effects on voters
- As the opinion polls are the least inaccurate way of assessing the electoral race, making this information public affects the race itself. There are several ways in which a voter can be effected.
- Opinion polls play an inordinately profound role in shaping perceptions of likely voters. The average Indian voter is generally deemed to be vulnerable. This prompted the Election Commission recently to include photographs of candidates on the ballot to prevent confusion from multiple similar names.
- A bandwagon effect occurs when the poll prompts voters to back the candidate shown to be winning in the poll.
- The opposite of the bandwagon effect is the underdog effect. It is often mentioned in the media. This occurs when people vote, out of sympathy, for the party perceived to be “losing” the elections.
- Tactical voting theory is based on the idea that voters view the act of voting as a means of selecting a government. Thus they will sometimes not choose the candidate they prefer on ground of ideology or sympathy, but another, less-preferred, candidate from strategic considerations.
- Another example is the boomerang effect where the likely supporters of the candidate shown to be winning feel that chances are slim and that their vote is not required, thus allowing another candidate to win.
Negatives of opinion polls
- Opinion polls in India have not lived up to the highest standards of professional, rigorous and non-partisan polling.
- The real problem with Indian opinion polls, barring some honourable exceptions, lies with their non-transparency and non-professionalism.
- There is very little understanding among the common people or even media persons of what the polls can and cannot deliver. Pollsters make matters worse by making excessive claims.
- A general unwillingness on the part of polling agencies and the media to share even basic methodological details about their polls compounds the problem. Most polls get away by announcing the most perfunctory methodological information and making vague claims about the representative nature of the survey.
Rationale behind EC 48 hours ban before voting on opinion polls
The Commission mainly relied on the provisions of Sections 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, as amended by the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 1996, to support its view that
“the voter needs a period of at least 48 hours before the completion of the poll, during which he or she should not be disturbed in the process of weighing the merits and demerits of political parties and contesting candidates in the electoral fray, in a tranquil and balanced frame of mind.”
In particular, the Commission seems to have assumed that the rights of the electorate (that is, the right not to be disturbed while deciding which party to vote for) are incompatible with the “freedom of speech and expression” guaranteed in Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution, from which the freedom of the press is derived. Implicit in the Commission’s reasoning is the suspicion that the media might compromise the exercise of free and fair franchise.
Complete ban should not be considered. There already exists a ban on publishing the findings of polls beginning 48 hours before polling and till the last voter has cast her vote. This is a reasonable restriction, enough to safeguard against manipulations. A full ban for the entire duration of campaign may not stand judicial scrutiny.
Every election-related poll, or any opinion poll for that matter, must be required to make the following disclosures:
- The ownership and track record of the organisation carrying out the survey,
- Details of the sponsor; sampling frame,
- Sample size and the exact technique used to draw the sample;
- the social profile of the achieved sample;
- Where, when and how were the interviews conducted; the exact wording of the question and sequence of questions asked; raw vote shares reported in the survey and how they were converted into vote estimates and seats forecast.
Besides this proactive disclosure, the polling organisation should be required to supply some additional information on demand.This second-order disclosure could include providing basic tables for some key variables.
Finally, in case of dispute or challenge, the polling organisation should be required to open its unit level data (raw data file) for in-camera examination by a committee of experts. There could be a provision for strictures and sanctions against those who violate these norms.