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Exit Polls to Protect the Vote

Sunday 7 November 2004

Published: October 17, 2004

WASHINGTON - Since the 1960’s, the exit poll, that staple of election-night television, has been used along with other tools to declare winners when the polls close in each state, and its accuracy is noted later when the actual vote count proves it right. A landmark exception, of course, came in 2000, when the networks initially gave the decisive Florida vote to Al Gore.

But now exit polls are being used in some places to monitor the official vote count itself, either to validate the outcome or to mount a challenge to it.

That has happened in several countries in the last year, and in the United States one organization plans to use exit polls in five closely contested states in November to measure whether there have been impediments to voting.

Last fall, an American firm, whose polling clients have included Al Gore and John Edwards, was hired by some international foundations to conduct an exit poll in the former Soviet republic of Georgia during a parliamentary election. On Election Day, the firm, Global Strategy Group, projected a victory for the main opposition party. When the sitting government counted the votes, however, it announced that its own slate of candidates had won. Supporters of the opposition stormed the Parliament, and the president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, later resigned under pressure from the United States and Russia.

Bonjour Americans - Wake Up!

In August, exit polling figured in a bitter fight in Venezuela over what amounted to competing landslides for and against a recall of the sitting president, Hugo Chávez, a socialist with ties to Fidel Castro.

The recall’s proponents sponsored an exit poll, supervised by Penn, Schoen & Berland, an American firm whose clients have included Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg. Sometime before the polls closed on Aug. 15, Penn, Schoen reported that 59 percent of Venezuelan voters had said yes to throwing the president out of office.

A few hours later, the official count, by an election commission under Mr. Chávez’s control, declared him the winner, with 58 percent of the total. Both the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based human rights organization founded by Jimmy Carter, said that their observers had seen no irregularities at the polls. In response to the exit poll, they called for a random audit at selected polling stations and again found nothing suspicious.

Mr. Schoen acknowledged in an interview that the poll’s field workers were recruited by a group that helped organize the recall, but he said the volunteers had been trained to conduct the poll professionally, and that his firm would have no reason to put its reputation at risk by participating in a fraudulent poll. The recall’s supporters continue to believe the election was stolen.

In Afghanistan, ballot counting in last weekend’s presidential election may not be over for a few weeks, and a United Nations panel is investigating claims of irregularities. But a survey of voters leaving the polls projected that Hamid Karzai, the current president, had received enough votes to avoid a runoff. The poll’s sponsor, the International Republican Institute, is a Republican-run, federally financed vehicle for promoting democracy abroad. (The Democrats have one, too.)

Could exit polls also play a role in the American presidential election on Nov. 2? The potential is there.

Votewatch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, plans to conduct exit polls in selected states to monitor election procedures and record impediments to voting, including voting equipment flaws, confusion over ballots and perceived discrimination by polling officials.

Steven Hertzberg, a San Francisco systems engineer who founded Votewatch, said he planned to use volunteers supplied by civic groups like Common Cause, among other recruits, and that they would be trained and supervised by polling professionals.

From its exit polling, Votewatch hopes to go beyond anecdotal indicators and get a measure of how many people encountered which kind of problems, Mr. Hertzberg said.

The group has also decided to ask people whom they voted for, or meant to vote for, to assess whether one candidate’s backers are more affected by irregularities. But Fritz Scheuren, president of the American Statistical Association and a principal adviser to Votewatch, said it was important to note that "we are not competing with the networks, and we don’t want to appear to be."

In any event, its backers say, Votewatch won’t be projecting who will win or lose in November - only the incidence of voting problems that might affect the outcome.

Martin Plissner, a former CBS News political director, is the author of "The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections."

Forum posts

  • I really have doubts whether exit polls accurately predict the outcome. It assumes a lot. For example, people who vote later in the day might not reflect the pattern seen earlier in the day. Also, those actual early exit polls might spur the opposition to vote later that day. Also, there is no controlling the actual polltakers, they might feel more comfortable talking to women vs men, younger vs. older, single vs. married couples, white vs minority or all vice versa. These past two elections were so contentious and turned out so many more votes that I don’t think it fit previous voting patterns.

  • Why is it that the exit polls in the swing states that show Bush losing are ALWAYS wrong in one direction, viola, he wins!!