Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Opinion Polls: article in Der Standard

An article by Lisa Nimmervoll "Für Meinungen gibt es keine Stopptaste" Der Standard 29.2. 2016 looking at whether opinion polls should be banned just before elections and some international examples given by Melanie Sully. Other articles written by the same journalist in interviews with Melanie Sully include features on postal voting and e-voting with comparative studies appearing in Der Standard in September 2016 after problems in the Austrian presidential.

Additional Blog by Dr Melanie Sully

Ban the Polls? A debate on banning polls in Austria since forecasts could influence the outcome. Already this was discussed in Austria at a parliamentary enquete/hearing in 2002 and the evidence for legal reasons (violation of European Convention on Human Rights Art 10) weighed against a ban. Here Dr Melanie Sully explains more based on a presentation given for VCIOM Research Institute in Moscow at MGIMO in 2010: In Austria there is a debate on banning public opinion polls for partial duration of the election campaign especially towards the end or even on voting day. One concern is that polls could manipulate or at least influence the outcome if trends are known.  Public opinion polls can mobilise or demobilise voters. If they think the result is a foregone conclusion voters could stay at home and not bother to vote. Also knowing the trends could lead to more tactical voting. It could encourage people to vote for the party seemingly losing (underdog effect) or stimulate those to side with the perceived victors (bandwagon effect). Recent polls show in Austria and Britain an inclination to describe the campaign as “neck and neck” or too close to call. Partly this has the effect of making the whole thing sound exciting when it may be a pretty boring campaign and introduces an element of Olympic style sporting competition which always seems to arouse people’s interest. This has often been described as “horse race journalism”. Very often in a country like Austria where it is highly unlikely nowadays that one party will win an outright majority, the campaign degenerates into a discussion of the opinion polls rather than focussing on the policies of the rival parties. Thus the polls themselves become part of the election process rather than outside observers and commentators. So there is a need for a certain level of responsibility by pollsters and also the media and a higher level of awareness that this is a serious profession which should have as in other jobs a kind of “quality level”. The counter argument to banning opinion polls included citing the European Convention on Human Rights Article 10 (1) although part 2 should also be borne in mind:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers…… (2) The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests on national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

Although parties in Austria have their own exit pollsters and know trends on election day around lunch time, they and journalists do not officially reveal these to the public. The information is important for politicians and journalists alike who have to prepare themselves for analysis or explanations of loss of voters. Civil servants also are a group who benefit from knowledge of trends since they may have to act if there are indications of a “hung parliament” as happened in the UK in 2010 where no party had an overall majority in the House of Commons. Then the civil servants have a greater role to play than when the outcome of the election is clear. Self discipline though is regarded to be more desirable than legislation banning the polls since then others will reveal the information in this global network age and somehow or other the information will get out. These were the conclusions of a hearing in the Austrian parliament and a report published on 27.2. 2002. For this hearing the major opinion poll institutes gave evidence as well as representatives of the media as well as international academics, the federal ministries, and opinions from the districts and municipalities. The conclusion reached also stressed the need for minimum standards among pollsters as a profession to exercise restraint and responsibility. Such standards eg can include giving information- a) on how many were interviewed for the poll, b) when exactly the poll was conducted, c) methods used eg personal, telephone, written, internet, d) the margin of error e) whether one topic was under review or several together  f) the exact formulation of the question put g) the number of people who gave no answer (non response rate). h) further it should be clear when the institute is giving an interpretation and when data collected is being presented.