Holding on to an opinion

The EC's proposed ban on opinion polls would deprive voters of valuable pre-election information

The Election Commission has once again suggested that the law be changed in order to ban public opinion polling during election campaigns, at the same time that the triumph of pollsters in the American election is being celebrated. One reason for the success of those largely opinion-poll-based models (which also included economic indicators and other factors), was the large number of opinion polls conducted, some on a daily basis, both nationally and in the critical "battleground" states. If it is the EC's argument that opinion polls misinform voters, then perhaps it should work to encourage polling, rather than banning it. Indeed, polling results give voters valuable information and are no more biased than media pundits and talking heads.

We should not confuse opinion polling with exit polling, which has been prohibited in India for some time. Exit polls are conducted by approaching voters as they leave the polling station, and typically ask them to fill out a dummy ballot with additional questions (their personal characteristics and beliefs), which is then deposited in a ballot box. In most democracies, the results of an exit poll are not revealed until the polls have closed, so that early and late voters are exposed to the same information. Some scholars think knowing exit poll results would create a "bandwagon" effect, where late voters would want to side with the perceived winner, or an "underdog" effect, with voters switching support to someone seen to be behind. There is no firm evidence to decide that issue. In multi-party elections like India's, late-in-the-day voters might also consult exit polls to shift their vote from a third- or fourth-party candidate to one of the two front-runners. The ban on releasing exit poll results until the voting is over is thus probably justified.

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