Pre-poll surveys in India – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

With the State Legislative Assembly elections approaching in several states, Pre-poll surveys have become a matter of debate once again.

In October, the Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, was forced to resign. He was charged with orchestrating fake surveys and bribing the news media to show them as genuine opinion polls.

Back home in Uttar Pradesh, one of the political parties has appealed to the Election Commission of India to ban Pre-poll surveys by media outlets six months before State and General elections.

With actual results often at variance with the predicted results, is it time that Election Commission should finally take a call on these pre-poll surveys?

Let’s find out.

What are Pre-poll surveys?

These polls typically ask respondents how they will vote in the upcoming election, along with other measures of voter knowledge, attitudes, and likely voting behavior.

Overall they reflect public preference before an election.

The validity of pre-poll surveys can be assessed by comparing them with the outcomes of the actual election.

Psephology is the statistical study of elections and trends in voting.

Opinion polls to study Indian national elections emerged in the 1950s. The proliferation of electronic media and the rapid monetisation in the 1990s provided momentum to polling agencies to venture into opinion polling on national electoral politics and state election contests.

The survey data provide for crucial social science insights, validation of theoretical research and academic knowledge production.
Psephology continues to provide the best telescopic view of elections based on the feedback of citizens.
Why pre-poll surveys hold influence over elections in India?

Out of every 100 Indians who voted in the 2019 national elections, only 35 were committed voters, who were sure of their voting preference before the campaigns began. The remaining 65 voters made their voting decision in the last few days or weeks before the election day (Lokniti National Election Study).

So, 65% of Indian voters make their voting decisions quite late in an election.

And, nearly 30% of these non-committed voters make their choice based on who they think is likely to win. When winning margins in India’s multi-party elections are small, the decision of these non-committed voters can make a big impact on the electoral outcome.

Hence, a rigged pre-poll survey can easily sway voter share, and hence outcomes of elections in India.

What are the issues/concerns associated with pre-poll surveys?

i). Growing weaponization of opinion polls: In the last few years, political leaders and parties have weaponized opinion polling to shape and influence, rather than just reflect, public preferences. Election outcomes are impacted by fake pre-poll surveys.

ii). Effective at misleading public: Since these polls carry a facade of objectivity, voters are more easily misled.

iii). Unclear survey methodology: Most polls published by the Indian media, barring a few, do not disclose basic details of their survey methods, and do not make their data public.

iv). Most people judge a survey purely on their sample size with the assumption that a large sample size signifies a good survey. The notion of a sample size is highly misunderstood. The selection of the sample is far more important than the size.

v). The 255th report of the Law Commission has also called for regulation of opinion poll for three reasons- a). to ensure that credentials of the organizations conducting the poll is made known to the public, b) public has a chance to assess the validity of the methods used in conducting the poll, c) public is adequately aware that the poll is in the nature of forecasts or predictions.
How is an exit poll different from a pre-poll survey?

The “exit-poll” means an opinion survey inspecting how electors have voted at an election. Exit polls generally involve asking citizens about their voting preferences on Election Day itself.

The ‘exit’ refers to polling done on people who have just exited voting booths. They are different from pre-poll surveys or opinion polls, which are conducted before the elections.

In 2008, Parliament amended the Representation of the People Act and inserted Sec 126A and 126B to explicitly ban the conducting and dissemination of exit polls during the period laid out by the EC, usually until the very last day of voting for any elections taking place simultaneously. The results of exit polls can’t be released mid-way during a multi-phase election and are released once all the phases are over.

Can EC ban opinion polls?

Law Ministry had suggested that EC can restrict opinion polls using its powers under Article 324.

Art 324: It gives EC the power of superintendence, direction and control of conducting the elections.

But, EC was of the opinion that, that banning opinion polls under Art 324, may not be possible due to Article 77.

Art 77: Under Article 77 of the Constitution, all executive actions of the Centre are taken in the name of the President.

The Parliament in 2008 had restricted only the publishing of the exit polls (before completion of all phases of elections) and had put no restrictions on the Opinion Polls. Hence a ban on the Opinion Polls by an Executive organ, when the Legislature had already considered the issue, may not be “legally sustainable”.

Present situation: Currently, opinion polls are barred from being published in electronic media for 48 hours prior to an election in that polling area under Section 126(1)(b) of the RP Act, 1951. The contravention of Section 126(1)(b) is punishable under Section 126(2) with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine, or with both.
What is the way forward?

– Election Commission (EC) should set standards: The EC can help voters detect fake opinion polls by defining the standards and guidelines. Any opinion poll that does not reveal its survey methodology, sample selection technique, sample size and exact questionnaire should be considered suspect.

– A robust sampling methodology: As mentioned earlier, selection of a correct sample size is supremely important for a vastly diverse, multi-party, first-past-the-post democracy like India. To survey a state election in India, a robust sampling methodology should choose people from every assembly constituency, identity, age group and gender. A survey of a well-represented 2,000 people is far superior to a survey of 20,000 people chosen from just a few assembly constituencies or a specific religion or age group.

– Disclosure of survey methods: The Election Commission can mandate disclosure of detailed survey methods, raw data and prescribe minimum stratified sampling standards for pre-poll surveys.

Conclusion

Opinion polls do not just reflect the opinions of people but have a potential to influence the results as well. If 30 per cent of India’s voters are vulnerable to such influence, then there is an urgent need to regulate this exercise and protect the sanctity of India’s democracy.

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