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Mains Articles

Ban on Exit Polls: Why It Needs To Be Revisited

Election Commission is the instrument to ensure informed consent of the voter, not the end-goal of democracy. The government should abandon the paternalistic notion that people need to be protected from information, to keep out evil influences. Trust their judgement.
By IT' Mains Articles Team
February 17, 2017

Contents

  • Why it is in news?
  • Background
  • How did the media react to the Election Commission’s guidelines?
  • Difference between exit poll and opinion poll
  • But why is the Election Commission (EC) opposed to media coverage of opinion polls and exit polls during a multi-phase election?
  • How do other countries deal with pre-election and exit polls?
  • When did the EC first attempt to place curbs on such surveys?
  • Why is the current EC ban limited to exit polls?
  • Arguments in favour of banning exit polls
  • Do the exit polls actually influence voting behaviour? Truth behind above arguments
  • EC’s own failings
  • Way ahead

 

GS (M) Paper-2: “Salient features of the Representation of People’s Act.”
GS (M) Paper-2: “Statutory, regulatory and various quasi-judicial bodies”

 

Ban on Exit Polls: Why It Needs To Be Revisited

Why it is in news?

The Election Commission’s (EC) decision to get an online editor of Dainik Jagran arrested for publishing an exit poll when the polling process is far from complete is a needless attack on free speech.

While the editor is out on bail, it is worth challenging the arguments and assumptions underlying the ban, which was sanctified by a change in the Representation of the People Act in 2010.

'Dainik Jagran' online Editor Shekhar Tripathi
‘Dainik Jagran’ online Editor Shekhar Tripathi

Background:

  • The root of this trouble is the EC’s prohibition of exit polls.
  • Recently, the Election Commission (EC) had banned the conduct and publication of exit polls between February 4 and March 8, when five states were scheduled to vote.

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How did the media react to the Election Commission’s guidelines?

  • There were strong protests from both the print and electronic media, who contended that the guidelines violated their fundamental right of free speech and expression.
  • As per media, it is condemnable to arrest a journalist for doing his job of disseminating information received from another agency, a pollster called RDI.
  • The arrest will tend to strengthen state intolerance of media and could create a climate of suppression of facts that citizens need to know in order to take informed decisions and form opinions.
  • The EC order was challenged in the Supreme Court and the High Courts of Delhi and Rajasthan.
  • The Supreme Court heard the matter urgently, but did not stay the Commission’s guidelines, making the 1998 Lok Sabha elections the only elections in the country in which both opinion and exit polls were banned for close to a month.

Difference between exit poll and opinion poll

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  • An opinion poll is a pre-election survey to gather voters’ views on a range of election-related issues.
  • An exit poll, on the other hand, is conducted immediately after people have voted, and assesses the support for political parties and their candidates.

But why is the Election Commission (EC) opposed to media coverage of opinion polls and exit polls during a multi-phase election?

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  • Both kinds of polls can be controversial if the agency conducting them is perceived to be biased.
  • The EC believes the results of such polls influence voting behaviour during an election that plays out in multiple phases: in the case of UP, India’s largest state, in seven phases spread over February 11 to March 8.
  • Critics say the projections of these surveys can be influenced by the choice, wording and timing of the questions, and by the nature of the sample drawn.
  • Political parties often allege that many opinion and exit polls are motivated and sponsored by their rivals, and could have a distorting effect on the choices voters make in a protracted election, rather than simply reflecting public sentiment or views.

How do other countries deal with pre-election and exit polls?

European Union countries:

  • Sixteen European Union countries ban reporting of opinion polls, with ban timeframes ranging from a full month to just 24 hours before polling day.
  • Only Italy, Slovakia and Luxembourg have a ban of more than 7 days. A 7-day blackout imposed by France in 1977 was overturned by a court order that deemed it to be violative of the freedom of expression.
  • The French ban has been reduced to 24 hours ahead of voting day.

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UK:

  • In the UK, there are no restrictions on publishing results of opinion polls — however, results of exit polls can’t be published until the voting is over.

US:

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  • In the United States, media coverage of opinion polls is regarded as an integral part of free speech in elections, and publication is allowed at any time.
  • The only restriction that exists — not reporting likely outcomes from exit polls before voting is over on election day — is one that news organisations commissioning the polls voluntarily impose upon themselves.

When did the EC first attempt to place curbs on such surveys?

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In 1997:

  • The EC held its first consultation with political parties on exit and opinion polls on December 22, 1997 — when Dr M S Gill was Chief Election Commissioner — followed by another on December 23. In the meetings, representatives of most national and state parties said these polls were unscientific, and suffered from biases in the size and nature of samples.

Other attempts:

  • Soon afterward, on January 11, 1998, with Lok Sabha polls and Assembly elections in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura around the corner, the Election Commission issued guidelines under Article 324 of the Constitution, prohibiting newspapers and news channels from publishing results of pre-election surveys and exit polls between 5 pm on February 14 and 5 pm on March 7. The first votes in the elections were scheduled to be cast on February 16, 1998, and the last votes on March 7.
  • The EC also mandated that while carrying the results of exit and opinion polls, newspapers and channels should disclose the sample size of the electorate, the details of polling methodology, the margin of error and the background of the polling agency.

Why is the current EC ban limited to exit polls?

  • After the success of 1998, the EC tried to invoke these guidelines again ahead of the Lok Sabha polls of 1999. But sections of the media refused to follow it, forcing the EC to move court.
  • The matter was referred to a Constitution Bench of the apex court, which expressed concern over the constitutional validity of the guidelines. After the Bench observed that the EC cannot enforce such guidelines in the absence of statutory sanction, the Commission withdrew its plans.
  • In 2004, the EC approached the Law Ministry along with the endorsement of six national parties and 18 state parties, seeking an amendment to the Representation of the People Act to provide for a ban on both exit and opinion polls during a period specified by the Commission.
  • The recommendation was accepted in part, and in February 2010, restrictions were imposed only on exit polls through the introduction of Section 126(A) in the Act.
  • In November 2013, the EC held consultations with political parties to revive its demand to restrict pre-election opinion polls as well.
  • All political parties with the exception of the BJP endorsed the suggestion to forbid publishing results of opinion polls from the date of notification of elections until the end of polling.
  • The suggestion was sent to the Law Ministry, but no action has been taken on it so far.

Arguments in favour of banning exit polls:

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  1. Exit polls disclosed in the early stages of polling may impact voting patterns in the latter stages.
  2. These polls can be manipulated to show one party or the other in the lead, in a bid to influence voters.
  3. A derivative argument emanating from the above two points is that extraneous factors should not be allowed to distort voter intentions and final choices. She must exercise her franchise in a hermetically-sealed bubble.

Do the exit polls actually influence voting behaviour? Truth behind above arguments:

First,

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  • If elections are about choice, tactical voting, or tactical non-voting, are also choices. If, say, a voter believes that the earlier phase of voting went one way, he can change his mind in order to impact the vote in later stages.
  • Tactical voting happens even without exit polls, as parties put up dummy candidates, and religious and caste groups vote differently in different constituencies in order to defeat a party they are against, etc.
  • If voter behaviour is about voting for or against someone, is it any business of the EC to insist that she should be voting only in the way she initially planned to?
  • If more information results in different patterns of voter behaviour, there is nothing wrong in it.
  • The only thing to guard against is voter laziness, where he or she does not go to vote thinking it is all over.
  • What is worth defending is the voter’s right to vote as he or she wants to, and to change his or her mind at the last minute, without coercive pressures.
  • Exit polls are merely additional information inputs and not a deterrent to choice.
  • In any case, the alleged damage exit polls may do can easily be done by political parties claiming victory after one phase and by newspapers or TV channels hinting at how the vote went.
  • A mere ban on exit polls does not automatically shut off a source of critical information for the voter.
  • By denying the voter this information, the EC is effectively limiting voter choices, which is unwarranted in a free election. What information the voter does not get formally, she will seek informally, which may be worse.

Second,

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  • The argument that some exit polls may be dubious and fake does not hold much water.
  • When fake news and paid news happen in most elections, and politicians can anyway convey biases through innuendo and dog-whistle statements that appeal to baser instincts, the assumption that only exit polls are distortive of voting intentions is questionable.
  • The commission should not presume that voters are fools, who will get taken in by exit poll misrepresentations.
  • These are exaggerated fears, and can anyway be fanned by local media and through whisper campaigns that the commission can do nothing about.
  • The antidote to fake or doctored news is exposure of these sources, not a ban. Nothing distorts choice like bans.
  • If multiple agencies compete among themselves to conduct exit polls, it is likely that they will contradict each other, thereby cancelling out whatever impact a single poll might have had.

Three,

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  • The commission’s assumption that voters must exercise choice in an antiseptic environment is plain wrong. Nobody makes choices in a vacuum, the EC cannot provide a bubble of isolation in which the voter decides whom to vote for in an election.
  • Pressures from family, community, friends and material incentives all play a part in voter decisions. The voter has to decide amidst this cacophony.
  • A ban on exit polls is hardly going to be decisive in cutting out the noise.

EC’s own failings:

  • This year, Election Commission is holding elections spread over large timeframes. For example, three mini states (Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand), one midi state (Punjab) and one mega state (UP) are going to the polls.
  • Here the question is: What stopped the commission from finishing the four smaller polls in one day, and the whole of UP in another?
  • If the Lok Sabha elections can be held over seven or eight phases, what is the earthy need to use the same time frame for one big state?
  • The commission’s job is to hold the elections quickly and then move on. By giving itself extended time to hold elections in slow motion, it is giving itself needless importance and control over the discourse longer than needed.
  • In the process, it is stamping on free speech, when the whole purpose of an election is to allow politicians, the citizenry, and the media to use this freedom to enable voters to make a choice.
  • The point of an election campaign is to influence the voter, and to artificially try and prevent one form of influence – opinion or exit polls – is counter-productive.
  • The EC should stop thinking that the purpose of the polls is to give its own views predominance.
  • The commission is the instrument to ensure informed consent of the voter, not the end-goal of democracy.

Way ahead:

  • The EC should remove the ban. Such polls will create one additional source of information, remove a gag on media and create a market for opinion.
  • The government should abandon the paternalistic notion that people need to be protected from information, to keep out evil influences. Trust their judgement.
[Ref: Economic Times, Indian Express]

 

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