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Publication of exit polls violation of election guidelines

Seventy three constituencies in 15 districts of Uttar Pradesh went for assembly polls in phase one on February 11. During the first phase of UP elections, some over enthusiastic newspapers published opinion polls. The Election Commission ordered lodging of FIRs against that Hindi Daily and an agency in 15 districts in Uttar Pradesh in connection with publication of “exit polls” in violation of its directions. Taking a serious view of the violation of its directions, the EC shot off a letter to the Chief Electoral Officer of Uttar Pradesh in which it reminded the CEO that the “offence under Section 126A is punishable by imprisonment for a term upto 2 years or with fine or both.” The EC said that it has been brought to its notice that “the Dainik Jagran newspaper has published result of exit polls conducted by a company by the name of Resource Development International (I) Pvt Ltd on the first phase of elections in UP, through their website.” As per the Commission’s directions, exit polls cannot be conducted and publicised by means of print and electronic media or dissemination in any other manner starting from 04 February 2017 at 7 am to 8 March 2017 at 5.30 pm. The reported violation by the Resource Development International (I) Pvt Ltd and Dainik Jagran by conducting the exit poll and dissemination of its results amounts to offence under Sections 126A and 126B of RP Act, 1951, the EC said. Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code relates to disobeying orders of an authority will also be used, it said.

The poll watchdog pointed out that Section 126A(1) of Representation of the People Act, 1951 provides that no person shall conduct any exit poll and publish or publicise by means of print or electronic media, the result of any exit poll during such period as may be notified by the Commission. Actually speaking, these exit polls really have no accuracy or authenticity, with variations in overall “polls of polls” as the referendum approaches, can these polls be trusted – particularly given the glaring failures to predict the outcome several times during various elections. The reasons behind the discrepancy between polls and results lie in the polling procedure itself. And there is an obvious difficulty when public opinion is split almost in half. A poll comes out – often a poll that was commissioned and published by a media company – and it gets heavily publicised by the media. In doing so, the media often increase the name recognition of whichever candidate is in the lead. As a result, that candidate becomes even more well-known and gets an extra boost the next time people are surveyed. This is known as a feedback loop, and it’s even more important in the early stage of the election cycle when the public is trying to spot someone they know from the crowd.

Reality is even more complicated. Public opinion is not independent of geographical location. Isolated or small places tend to be conservative and based on past results and large metropolitan cities tend to be more liberal. They are also densely populated. A selection of 100 people from a small area and a large city will then give a loop-sided perception of public opinion. So, ideas to fix this process start to take shape. For example, the sample needs to be representative of the population – this is known as “stratified sampling”. There are always social, economic, cultural and national variations in the way people think on any political issue. So, in order to have an accurate poll, a pollster would need to stratify the population according to factors, such as their wealth or where they live, and sample each group properly and separately – rather than choosing people at random. While some polling companies do publish details of the way they carry out their polls, it is not always clear.

Stratified sampling is more complicated (and also more political) than simple random sampling. Pollsters would need to decide on the guiding factors of public opinion on an issue and that may differ every year, as other events take place shaping public opinion. In the end, the poll results depend on how people reply to a survey. There is no reason to reply honestly, or even at all. And there is also the likelihood that a sampled individual won’t actually vote on the Election Day. So, we can probably never have an accurate polling procedure when the public opinion is so split. Public opinion polls have racked up a few big-time failure in recent years, embarrassments that compelled a leading firm to conduct an internal audit to find out what went wrong.

Polling is a very important element of democracy. Polls “give the public an independent voice that’s not generally present” otherwise in politics and political news coverage. However, the recent errors and a steep decline in the number of people responding to opinion surveys, is “a worrisome trend because one of the main claims of polling is that it represents the people’s views. Not every pollster has the time, the money, or a staff big enough, to up their game and dig into a major opinion survey with that level of commitment. That’s especially true when campaigns, polling firms and news organizations are competing for attention in a hyper-speed, social media-fuelled, 24-hour news environment, it makes for more variability. People partially believe in the ‘so called’ exit polls, and somewhere these polls influence them while voting. I am really happy that Election Commission acted against a publication, but the big question remains here is “who will bell the cat”? Will they ever be punished or booked because this publication is known as ruling party supporter.

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Dr Vaidehi Taman
Dr Vaidehi an Accredited Journalist from Maharashtra is bestowed with Honourary Doctorate in Journalism, Investigative Journalist, Editor, Ethical Hacker, Philanthropist, and Author. She is Editor-in-Chief of Newsmakers Broadcasting and Communications Pvt. Ltd. for 11 years, which features an English daily tabloid – Afternoon Voice, a Marathi web portal – Mumbai Manoos, monthly magazines like Hackers5, Beyond The News (international) and Maritime Bridges. She is also an EC Council Certified Ethical Hacker, Certified Security Analyst and is also a Licensed Penetration Tester which caters to her freelance jobs.

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