A Social Democratic MP has proposed a ban on the making and reporting of exit polls on election day, arguing that the intensive reporting of polls is disturbing the election process.
That there has been a massive surge in opinion polls during election campaigns and even during voting hours on election day in Denmark and that the quality of polls and media reporting of polls in particular leaves much to be desired is a fact, but the question is if there is a democratic problem and if a legal ban is the right solution in that case.
My hunch is that media reporting creates a lot of noise, but it still has to be proved that opinion polls have actually swayed public opinion. The example given by Lene Hansen is dubious: Yes, voters may fear throwing away their votes, but if we look at the parties which lost representation in the Folketing during later years, they were all more or less doomed in advance. That Danish national elections more often than not are notoriously close, is also true, but if there is a pattern here, then the conclusion as I see it must be that campaigns are very effective in mobilising voters. We should remember that turn-out in Denmark is not just above, but well above 80 per cent.
Personally, I find the concentration on opinion polls annoying and even though I don’t do electoral research, even I can see the mistakes journalists make in their reporting (Short version: Drawing conclusions on a thin background – and, yes DR and TV2, I remember very well the journalistic train wreck which was election night 1998). Generally, the trends of a campaign are laid out well in advance, even if there may be some spectacular wins or losses during campaigns –
Liberal Ny Alliance in 2007 is a case in point.
But why all these polls in general and exit polls during voting hours in particular? The big problem for TV stations on election night is that even though the polls close at 20:00 there really isn’t much to report before 21.30 when the first results are returned and we only move into secure territory around 22:00. But the stations – TV2 in particular – want to catch viewers as early as possible and keep them on their channel and so election night has started earlier for each election so that in 2007 the situation was so, that TV started reporting “results” by the late afternoon – with the usual lack of critical perspective. This is ridiculous and serious voters should listen to some good music or have a good meal and ignore the TV until later in the evening. (Oh, well: My links lack any consequence here… )
But does this constitute a case for legal regulation? I really don’t think so. If media want play games, let them by all means do it, but as long as we cannot find seriously conclusive evidence of a distortion of voting behaviour, politicians should stay out of the picture.
Bonus: Henrik Oscarsson has some posts about opinion polls and how (not) interpret them. Swedish examples but they can be applied to Denmark as well. 1: Opinionsjournalistikens fällor, 2: Opinionsläget januari 2009.