Posts tagged ‘politics’

How Polls ruin democracy

I’ve thought about this topic for a while, but with the looming election and people’s political engines in high gear, it may seem like politicizing.  But now that Election Day has come and gone, I feel more like I can discuss this outside of the craziness of the campaign season.

The subject is polls.  Opinion polls like you see on news programs or in the paper.  Mostly asking whom you are voting for.  The question I ask is: how do polls help our democracy?

I am a really big fan of the secret ballot.  The US began using the secret ballot (or “Australian ballot”, where it was adopted from) in the late 1800’s, with the last state adopting it in 1891.  Before that, voting was open, meaning you had to announce your vote either in print or vocally.  Before then, it was all too common for voters to be targeted by their opponents with intimidation or bribery since their vote was known.  Secret balloting allows the voter to be sure that his/her vote is not subject to these problems.

But having a secret vote doesn’t mean that votes are private, and this is due to the voters themselves.  People are vocal about their choices, and quick to announce their vote to all who will listen.  This kind of public display allows for the kinds of problems secret balloting is trying to mitigate: This election, there were stories of party-affiliated poll workers challenging voting credentials of only voters of the other party, and stories of phone calls and text messages spreading misinformation about voting being extended into Wednesday. Though not as extreme as voter intimidation in a place like Zimbabwe (where opponents of the ruling government were routinely killed to dissuade opposition voters), these kinds of things are robbing citizens of their one absolute right in our democracy.  The publicity of a voters intentions allows this kind of thing.

Polls bring about a different kind of issue.  During the campaign season, pollsters are constantly sampling the population, getting their demographic backgrounds, locations, histories, and then marrying this data to the candidate they say they are voting for.  From this the pollsters start painting pictures of how an election will turn out.  But what about this:  If the picture is being painted that a specific candidate is going to win, and win handily, what incentive is there for a person inclined to vote for the opposing candidate to vote?  If the picture of the country is that a candidate will win, does that vote for his opponent matter?

Here’s a scenario:  I’m supporting a candidate.  It’s getting close to the election, and I check a news outlet for the latest poll.  The poll shows that my candidate is behind, and not by a little.  By double-digits. A result that, in the course of the election, would require a huge turnaround by the voters of the winning candidate to allow my candidate to win.  So when I go to vote, is my vote going to make a difference, knowing that if everyone votes like they say they’re going to, my candidate will lose anyway?  What is the actual impact of my vote?  I did what I wanted to do, which was vote for my candidate, and the outcome was still negative.  My vote matters naught.

Now think about this:  I’m supporting a candidate.  It’s getting close to the election.  And up until election day, NO POLLS have been released.  No one has been asked their opinion, and nothing has been published.  Oh, my neighbors and friends have mentioned their preferences, but across the nation there is no indication of how the vote will break.  Now I go to vote, and cast my ballot for my candidate.  Does my vote matter?  Yes.  Not only does it matter, it’s potential impact is enormous:  my vote could literally be the vote that wins the election for my candidate.  Suddenly, with no clear picture of who’s winning, my vote is absolutely critical.

There’s no chance that a scenario like this could ever happen.  The ubiquitous news and volume of media means that there will always be speculation, analysis, and prediction.  I would really like votes to be like Schrödinger’s theory: In each vote, every state of being exists until it is cast.  Think about how that would change strategy in campaigns:  Now instead of courting endorsements or blocs of voters, candidates would have to stick to their messages.  No candidate would be able to “write off” a segment of the voting public because they’ve already been decided.  But alas this is not the case in modern politics.

I’ve taken it on myself to guard against giving out my preferences for a specific candidate, for the simple reason that who I vote for is my business, and I have no obligation to reveal who I support to anyone else.  Thus the beauty of the secret ballot.  Several weeks ago, I received a call from a group conducting a poll for a national survey.  The very first question was, “If the presidential election were held today, who would you vote for?”  I politely returned that I refused to answer that question.  He persisted, stating that this was simply for research purposes.  I stood my ground, not giving him an answer.  I could audibly hear him sigh; this was the entire point of the call.  He did proceed to gather my demographic information, income bracket, ethnicity, marital status, etc., but it was clear that without that first bit of information, the rest is not applicable.  I could have just told him right then that since he wasn’t getting that crucial piece of information, we might as well end this call now.

In short, while I don’t believe that people hold their vote in lower value in the face of impending loss, I think they are discouraged that the true value of their vote is somehow less worthwile.  If they went to the polling place with the thought that their vote could be the vote that puts their candidate over the top, then we’d all feel like real partners in this democracy.

Oh, and by the way, don’t bother asking who I voted for.  I won’t tell you.