First past the opinion poll

c: | f: /

Are opinion polls an outdated tool for determining voter spread? Should they be abolished to allow greater political freedom?

In the UK’s first past the post election system, there’s a fundamental problem component: the media. With ever-shortening, virtually instantaneous feedback loops via social media (most famously, the tweets about an earthquake in one country made it to another country faster than the shock wave of the actual event) the opinion poll isn’t really of much value any more to us, the people. Conversely, it’s of even greater importance now than ever before to those who wield power or who have media connections.

Sidestepping the usual people who lie anyway, opinion polls in a first past the post faux democracy are yet another mechanism to help keep minority parties out of government. Even 38 Degrees encouraged me to tweet or share on Facebook the latest poll stats and where each party stood on various election issues (most of which I don’t care about) to try and bolster people into voting. Unfortunately, it’s likely to have the opposite effect.

Here’s how it works:

  • People are asked in advance which party they’d vote for, the results are collated and a graph produced.
  • The graph is shared widely prior to the election. It changes slightly, shifts and roils depending on which airhead member of parliament or celebrity says what, leaks what, or lies about what in the run-up to the main event.
  • Given this a priori information about how the election is going to turn out (or, more accurately, a posteriori knowledge from the polls fed back and applied to predict the outcome, giving rise to a loose form of implied foreknowledge), the wider it is spread, the more accurate the forecast becomes, because it sways people’s voting decisions.

A few concrete examples of this in action:

  1. In a “two-horse” constituency with no overall majority of either party, the opinion poll serves to marginalise the outsiders further. Anyone seeing that there’s roughly 40% of the vote going to each of the two main parties is likely to not vote for one of the smaller parties. The thinking process is: “well, if it’s going to be one of the main two and I vote differently, my vote is effectively wasted and may in fact allow [insert name of candidate] into power.” Barring it might give the minor candidate enough votes to retain their deposit or convince them to stand again next time, the voter is likely to cast their vote tactically to choose from whom they perceive is the lesser evil of the two front runners. That endorses a viewpoint that the person may not actually hold.
  2. In a “safe” constituency with a large majority of one party, people seeing the opinion poll who are not enamoured by the policies of the dominant party are likely to either:
    1. vote for their preferred candidate — or any of the other people — but with the knowledge that their vote doesn’t really count because the seat is already won.
    2. not vote at all (cf. The Jean-Marie Le Pen debacle in 2002).

In both cases, those voters who do not already have a political bias towards one of the main parties (incidentally, parties whom have the budgetary resources and connections to buy your allegiance through propaganda), are left with one piece of information that they “know”: such-and-such minority party are never going to get in power.

That information is a direct consequence of the opinion poll result, and is damaging because it erodes the fundamental nature of the democratic process, inhibiting groundswell movements that might radically alter the political and environmental landscape for the better of future generations. We all know that it’s technically possible for an outsider to win. If enough people club together, it’s easy to overturn the status quo (not the band), but unless there’s an even spread of votes in a constituency across all parties, opinion polls hinder the ability to effect change.

Some system of proportional representation may help balance things out, but that brings with it other challenges — social and mathematical — that deserve a separate discussion.

Flip the vote

Bearing in mind I’ve never been asked how I voted in any official capacity, where exactly do the numbers come from? What’s the sample size? Were all reasonable steps taken to ensure a statistically sound demographic was represented, or was it just a canvasser earning pocket money by standing outside Primark with a clipboard asking anyone who passed?

Assuming I’m normal (ha!) — at least in the statistical sense — and should have been asked at least once in my twenty-odd years of being able to vote, who’s to say that the numbers are even remotely accurate? The data gatherers have plenty of historical information available for predictions in any given ward and can overlay that data with counting placards or canvassing opinion if necessary to back up the empirical findings of yesteryear. But in this time of austerity, is it done thoroughly? And at what cost to the country’s voters?

If nothing else, it lends credence to the notion that you don’t need voting machines to help swing the result of an election like they do in America; it can be twisted by (perhaps falsely) publicising opinion poll stats and letting the human condition of sharing information take its course. Is that already happening? Probably.

Arguably this technique of providing a so-called service to voters which in reality subverts the election process is a form of vote rigging. Last time I checked, tampering with an election — before or after the event — is technically illegal, yet it happens every day in the media in the same way that tampering of the judicial system occurs via trial-by-journalism.

I’d love for an election campaign devoid of polls and statistics and swingometers, which allowed us to freely choose which of the available monkey suits took office. I’m willing to bet the results would, perhaps not radically at first, but over time be measurably different to the farce we have today.

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