What is the Relevance of Exit Polls in a Democracy?

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To determine what future the exit poll should have, we need to assess the purposes it can serve, how well it can serve them, what alternatives exist, and what the relative costs and benefits of exit polls are vis-à- vis alternative techniques. The exit poll’s most familiar purpose is to provide the backbone of a system that can be used to predict winners of elections earlier than the official results are available. It is not immediately clear that enabling media outlets to call elections a few hours earlier than official results are available contributes to the democratic process or to any other process of serious social concern. Even for those inclined to believe that calling elections has democracy-promoting value, evaluating how well the exit poll serves this purpose is nonetheless complicated. In our view, the record of exit poll-based projections of winners and losers is both helpful and frustrating. The record is helpful because reasonably well-executed and well-analysed exit polls, particularly when used with other available , generally do allow pollsters to predict the right winners. In this erudite narrative, Ashoka looks into the merits and demerits of exit polls, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Is the exit poll intellectually dead? That is, in the foreseeable future, can exit polling serve a purpose other than allowing media operations to “call” elections a few hours earlier than official results become available? This process of calling elections, and the race among media organisations to be the first to do so, may serve a recreational purpose; but whether calling elections contributes much to a thriving democracy is uncertain. Even if we consider a set of  crucial to the social sciences and law about the nature of the electorate, it is still not immediately clear that exit polls have much of a future. Suppose, we want to learn about the characteristics and motivations of voters. Are we better off with the exit poll – currently around forty-five years old – or with a combination of older (mail, telephone) and younger (Internet) forms of polling, which may now be able to provide a great deal of information more cheaply than exit polls can? The question becomes even sharper when we consider that it may be possible to combine results from the older and younger techniques with information from data aggregators, which compile a vast (and increasing) amount of specific and wide-ranging data on voters and potential voters. In short, we might conclude that the exit poll is unlikely to live much past middle age.

To determine what future the exit poll should have, we need to assess the purposes it can serve, how well it can serve them, what alternatives exist, and what the relative costs and benefits of exit polls are vis-à- vis alternative techniques. The exit poll’s most familiar purpose is to provide the backbone of a system that can be used to predict winners of elections earlier than the official results are available. As I noted above, it is not immediately clear that enabling media outlets to call elections a few hours earlier than official results are available contributes to the democratic process or to any other process of serious social concern. Even for those inclined to believe that calling elections has democracy-promoting value, evaluating how well the exit poll serves this purpose is nonetheless complicated. In our view, the record of exit poll – based projections of winners and losers is both helpful and frustrating. The record is helpful because reasonably well-executed and well-analysed exit polls, particularly when used with other available information, generally do allow pollsters to predict the right winners.

A second purpose that exit polls might serve is to provide information about the electorate, specifically its characteristics, thinking, and motivations. Such information is valuable. True, democracies can function without it, and additional information is not inevitably democracy-promoting. Nevertheless, information about the electorate can further short- and long term purposes. With respect to the short term, to the extent that we want politicians to do what the electorate wants them to do, and to the extent that we want the electorate to be able to punish politicians when they fail to do so, it is probably better that politicians know what the electorate wants–or at least that they know more than they would from the raw results of elections in which, most often, no more than two candidates seek each office.

An important purpose the exit poll might serve is as a check against official shenanigans. Here, the theory is that if the official results do not match the exit poll results, then the official results might be the result of tampering. At least in the United States, and thinking systematically (as opposed to focusing on an occasional freak occurrence), people view the exit poll’s ability to serve this purpose as almost a nonstarter. First, exit polls are visible to election administrators, so the presence of an exit poll might deter the behaviour it is attempting to detect. Second, the margin of error involved in exit polls, and the hard-to- adjust – for biases that plague any complex field operation, mean that fraud would have to be large for an exit poll to detect it. Yet the entire art of electoral fraud, as ample evidence from history shows, is to manipulate the outcome only to the extent required. On what basis would one conclude that a discrepancy between official and polling results indicates problems with the former as opposed to the latter? Given the difficulty that exit polls have had in predicting the results of some high-profile elections in which fraud was never seriously alleged, one would need substantial additional evidence external to the exit poll to suggest that the official count, not the exit poll, is suspect, in which case it is not clear how much value an exit poll adds. Another purpose that exit polls might serve is to allow study of the voting experience.

In the 2008 US presidential election, at least 70 per cent of the civilian electorate voted via the American ballot system (with some technological bells and whistles added) – that is, by visiting in person an officially run polling location and casting, in secret, a written or electronic ballot. As noted above, elections in the United States are administered by local partisans, who have powerful incentives to manipulate laws and practices governing election administration. Registration, purging of voting lists, ballot design, waiting times (which may increase relative to a jurisdiction’s failure to respond to changing demographics by redrawing precinct lines).

One strength of the exit poll, and the argument most often made by its proponents is that comparatively speaking, pollsters conducting an exit poll are more likely to request information from a person, who has actually voted or attempted to vote. This advantage can be overstated. Refusal rates in exit polls are high, particularly in the current era; in a well-executed exit poll, about half of persons approached will refuse to participate. Moreover, a less appreciated problem is that a great deal of voting occurs in schools, churches, apartment buildings, elderly residences, malls, and other high-traffic multiuse buildings. Exit pollsters, who ordinarily must stand outside a ’s exit, may have trouble distinguishing between a voter exiting the and a non-voter who came to the on other business.

So the exit poll has advantages – big ones. It also has big disadvantages. Each exit poll requires a complicated, expensive, and delicate field operation that includes the temporary hiring and training of hundreds of personnel. Because of the length of time between elections, there is no feasible way to keep pollsters permanently on staff. The expense involved in running, say, a national exit poll puts pressure on poll architects to cut corners in the field operation. For example, pollster training for the 2004 US presidential election exit poll – a poll performed on behalf of major media operations – ran into difficulties.

It may be safe to surmise that the only important purpose that exit polls will be able to serve in the foreseeable future – and the one they should serve – is the fourth one on our list: namely, to provide information about the voting experience. As we suggest above, the early calling of elections serves only to provide entertainment value. Given the financial pressure placed on newspaper and television organisations in recent years, I wonder how much longer these media outlets will choose to finance exit polling for this purpose. The process of cutting costs by cutting corners, already under way in the form of measures such as a single pollster per location and reduced pollster training, may degrade the information obtained beyond the point of usefulness.

Who should conduct the exit polls? If the primary role of exit polling becomes to document, evaluate, and (perhaps) combat partisan efforts to manipulate the electorate and the voting experience, what institution can best pursue these goals? The numerous failings (in the business sense) of local and regional newspapers, together with consolidation in the exit polling industry, suggest that the press – the traditional watchdog over governance–is probably unable or unwilling to finance the gathering of needed information.

My view is that academia should step in. I believe that exit polling provides an opportunity for academia to perform one of its noblest functions: to speak unpopular truth to power.

(This also appears on the blog that the author periodically writes in)

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the internet.

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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