An exit poll is a post election survey which is conducted immediately after people have voted to assess the support for political parties and their candidates.
On the other hand an opinion poll is a pre-election survey to gather voters’ views on a range of election-related issues.
As per guidelines of Election Commission (EC), Exit poll results cannot be published till the last round of elections is over. While there is no express ban on Opinion polls, Opinion poll results can be published only before 48 hours before the voting is scheduled to begin. The EC wants to restrict the publication and telecast of opinion polls as soon as it announces the enforcement of the model code of conduct for elections.
What is the issue with these polls?
Both kinds of polls can be controversial if the agency conducting them is perceived to be biased. 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.
Representatives of most national and state parties have conceded that these polls are unscientific, and suffer from biases in the size and nature of samples.
The EC has several times tried to ban and regulate these polls. For example in 1998 EC mandated that while carrying the results of exit and opinion polls, newspapers and channels should disclose:-
- sample size of the electorate,
- details of polling methodology,
- margin of error and
- background of the polling agency
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. The EC order was challenged and a constitutional bench of Supreme Court ruled that the EC cannot enforce such guidelines in the absence of statutory sanction.
Since then EC has at several times approached the Law ministry seeking an amendment in the law to ban these polls. In 2010, restrictions were imposed only on exit polls through the introduction of Section 126(A) in the Representation of People Act 1951.
What is the opposition to their regulation?
- Regulating these polls is seen as a curb on the fundamental freedom of speech and expression.
- Another criticism is that the voters have the right to know what other people's views are on critical electoral issues so that they can form an informed opinion before casting their votes.
How other countries deal with the issue?
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.
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.
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.
Since these polls are an important part of freedom of speech and expression and play an important role in informing voters, a blanket ban is unjustified.
The need is to establish an independent regulator to regulate the conduct of these polls in terms of sample space, sampling technique, type and timing of questions etc.