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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Analysis: Polling bans are ‘ineffective'

What's the point of banning the publication of polls in a world of 24-hour global news?

US-- As India prides itself on being the world's biggest democracy, reports of attempts to ban the publication of opinion polls in the run-up to elections will attract much scrutiny.

Among those awaiting the outcome of talks today between government ministers is Mike Traugott, president of the World Association for Public Opinion Research (Wapor), an organisation that seeks to promote and protect the work of pollsters across the globe.

Wapor is “categorically opposed” to restrictions on the dissemination of poll findings. “Citizens should be fully informed on important matters of public policy and with regard to elections, including what others think about the issues and candidates in a political campaign,” Traugott says.

Current proposals in India would put a block on such information being published in the period between an election being called and the vote coming to an end.

In this, though, the country is not alone. The last comprehensive count in 2002 found 30 countries placing embargoes on the publication of pre-election polls, ranging from one day before the vote to up to 30 days in advance.

In the last 12 months, Traugott said, Wapor has had to deal with a new law in Greece – although that is now under review – and proposed regulation in Chile. As a Wapor member of 20 years, he is well placed to assess the current global legislative threat to polling, and he is left with the impression that recent years have seen an increase in government attempts to restrict the practice.

Traugott doesn't believe nefarious motives lie behind such attempts. He accepts that in many parts of the world “the quality of data collection… is uneven” – raising genuine concerns about the validity of published results.

But that doesn't stop bans on publication being misguided or, as Traugott puts it, “ineffective”. What use is blocking the reporting of a national opinion poll in one country, if citizens of that country can easily visit a foreign media outlet online, or visit a global polling company's website to lay their hands on the results?

France acknowledged such a problem when it cut its pre-election poll embargo from seven days to just one day.

So although internet access can help savvy citizens skirt government attempts to curtail their poll consumption in the lead-up to an election, in developing countries web users are predominantly among the wealthier segments of society, creating what Traugott calls “a bias in access to information”.

Better, he says, that governments subscribe to Wapor's policy of “full disclosure and no prior restraints on dissemination”.

“Wapor supports the requirement that all of the details of data collection be disclosed so that knowledgeable consumers can use that information to make judgements about the scientific validity of the results,” says Traugott.

Letting the public decide for themselves? Surely that's not a novel concept for the world's biggest democracy.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that a Greek polling law had been rescinded. That is not the case - it is under review for revision. The article has been edited to reflect this. Apologies for any confusion.

Author: Brian Tarran

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