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How Polling Corrupts Democracy

The inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, 2017 signalled the beginning or the end of hope, depending upon whom is asked. Most people I know are worried or terrified about what comes next. This election, and other recent political developments including BREXIT and the success of right-wing parties in many nations owe a great deal to political polling. I think political polling has more influence upon events than is good for us, far more than meddling Russian hackers, far more than media bias. Ruminating and debating poll results replaces discussion of issues, transforms elections into sports events and voters into audiences. I wrote the argument below twenty five years ago but have never been able to generate much interest.

Perhaps its time has come.

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In 1993 the Toronto Star reported that “Canada's 27 million subjects are growing ornery and uncooperative - throwing the usefulness of current polling methods into question."   Donna Dasko of Environics Research admitted that polls "have a missing element - the kind of people who hang up may represent a block of voters whose intentions don't' match those who agree to be polled."

To understand the significance – and promise – of these observations, a bit of history is useful.  By 1996, three quiet years had calmed Canadians down about the most excoriated politician to ever stride the national stage. With an approval rating of 11 % in 1992, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney knew he was unelectable and resigned in February, 1993.  The following November the Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell were reduced from 151 seats to 2 - the worst defeat ever suffered by a federal party.

A year later Mulroney re-emerged to launch a $50 million libel suit against the federal government.  Apparently, the RCMP had tarnished his reputation by requesting information from the Swiss government concerning alleged kickbacks during the Airbus deal.

One year, $2.1 million and one official apology later, this too was laid to rest.

This was not the last misadventure Canadians would get to pay for. The Liberals soon found themselves mired in a scandal of their own devising.  They established the Sponsorship Fund in 1996 after 1995's sovereignty referendum saw Quebeckers choosing Canada by a perilous margin: 49.42% "Yes" to 50.58% "No".

The Liberals hoped to improve this score by reminding Quebeckers how much they were gaining by being part of Canada.  Such outcomes are difficult to measure (without holding a referendum!) and the Sponsorship fund became an opportunity for sleazy activities.  Perhaps this was all that could be hoped for. If Quebec's movers and shakers were prospering, why would they (and Quebeckers in general) support an agenda proposing to eliminate the goose producing such golden eggs?

However understood, Sponsorship Fund activities came to an end in 2004 when Auditor General Sheila Fraser blew the whistle on a long list of irregularities.  In 2005, Justice John Gomery conducted a public inquiry.  A number of people were convicted of criminal offenses and several served time. Among notable improprieties, $1 million of a $1.5 million contract had to be repaid.  None of the work had been done.

The scandal helped the re-born (no longer Progressive) Conservatives defeat the Liberals in 2006 and form a minority government.  On May 2, 2011, Prime Minister Harper won the majority he had been hoping for.  The political scene seemed certain to settle down as the Conservatives demonstrated what majority really means, doubly content because another election would not occur until October 19, 2015.

This quiet time was not to be.  On March 4, 2012, CBC’s Cross Country Checkup topic involved the blizzard of robocalls that occurred during the final days of the 2011 election.  Elections Canada reported 31,000 complaints regarding calls from automated systems and individuals representing themselves as Elections Canada workers misinforming voters about polling station changes.  Callers to Rex Murphy's Cross Country Checkup were unusually cross.  There was talk of criminal skulduggery.  There was talk about a public inquiry. There was even talk of nullifying the election.

As well, there was embarrassment.  Canada sends observers into dubious nations to judge whether elections are being properly conducted.  How can we make such assessments when our own behaviour does not pass muster?

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All this excitement should not distract us from two important questions. We need to think about why one of the world's premier democracies continues to be afflicted with politicians whose conduct is often manipulative and occasionally criminal? We need to think about why so many care so little.

These problems cannot be explained by referring to the moral deficiencies or intellectual shortcomings of voters or politicians.  Such problems have always been with us.  Moreover, individuals never been as well-informed - or at least enjoyed such go ogle options if they have any interest in becoming informed.

In spite of the urgency of  the issues governments are seized with:  environment, economy, health care,  international strife ... political issues and proceedings are increasingly ignored.  In 2011, 61.4 % of Canadians voted (up from 59.1% in 2008).  Of Canadians who voted, 40% opted for Conservatives.  In other words, it took only 24% of Canadians to elect a majority government.  Three out of four either did not want the present government, did not want a government at all, or did not care enough to 'exercise their mandate'.

However annoying or criminal they may be, robocalls cannot explain such numbers. Other factors must be involved, including the psychological consequences of urbanization and occupational specialization.  If everything depends upon corporations and governments, political options will be thought of in terms of extending, elaborating, or at least continuing, the political and economic status quo.

In such circumstances, not voting could be interpreted as voting yes! for everything that is going on.  A citizen who does not vote could be someone who sees no need for the fine tuning that presumably occurs when Liberals are elected instead of Conservatives or vice-versa.

For those who dismiss such talk as nonsense, only one other explanation is possible.  The democratic deficit, including poor voter turnout, asinine debates and even robocalls can be traced to the political polling that goes on all the time, and rises to a fever pitch during campaigns.

Political polls are toxic in many ways, but the most important harm is that they encourage politicians to be 'less than forthcoming' about platforms and agendas; to focus upon manipulating voters rather than developing policy and debating issues.

We have some sense of this.  Critics occasionally argue that poll results should not be publicized during the final days of election campaigns so voters can come to decisions ‘on their own’.  Why does this argument not apply all the time?

On Aug. 2/ 91, CBC’s The National aired a discussion of polls and possible harms. Representatives from the Gallop Company and Decima Research had made themselves available.  The most remarkable comment came from Gallop’s spokesperson.  He argued that polls provide people with an opportunity to ‘express themselves’, an opportunity apparently otherwise unavailable — in spite of the elections polls hope to anticipate!

The Man from Decima offerfed a more subtle defense.  If polls influenced voters, published results would at least occasionally ‘self-destruct’, and pollsters would not enjoy their reputation for reliability.

Both rejoinders miss the point. Polls could be influencing voters in ways that `balance out'.   Some voters, disliking the thought of ‘losing their vote’, gravitate to projected winners.   Alternatively, angry or cynical voters could use poll results to repudiate front-runners ‘on principle’ - or refuse to vote altogether.

In every case, the existence of political polls diminishes the likelihood that citizens will vote at all; or, if they do, vote according to their own understandings and priorities — surely the only reason for valuing democracy!

The citizens of democratic nations should rethink their acceptance of political polling for an even more important reason.  Periodically taking the electorate’s temperature only occurs in democratic societies. Fascist politicians, totalitarian regimes, single-party governments, functioning monarchies ... have little anxiety about how things are going, at least none that can be laid to rest asking questions door-to-door. (Disgruntled enclaves fomenting revolution are not likely to flag their ambitions to Mr. Gallop!)

Political polls represent efforts by governments and aspiring candidates to anticipate election results — and then massage, titillate or provoke voters whenever predictions are not to their liking.   In other words, political polls attempt to organize democracies in the direction of totalitarianism.

In day by day terms, polls corrupt political discourse. To provide for unfavourable poll results, platforms must be advanced ambiguously. Only vague positions can be massaged into different postures as poll results are `interpreted.'  As well, political polls provide the covert intelligence that makes robocalls, attack ads and other manipulations possible.

This is why successful politicians are almost always wealthy or enjoy wealthy backers.  This is why today's politicians are clustered in the middle of the political spectrum, waving nostrums harkening back to a time when democracy was young and full of promise.

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These consequences would not have been so pronounced were it not for an even more insidious harm: Pollsters claim their predictions to be accurate 19 times out of 20. With such claims footnoted in every newspaper, article and scholarly disquisition, few can resist political determinism: elections are orchestrated by factors beyond any person’s ken or influence. Long before voting day, the die is cast. There is no point in becoming informed, or even in going to the polling station!

In an ‘unpolluted’ environment, politicians would have nothing to lose by articulating substantive and thoughtful platforms. Indeed, denied the information they need to massage public opinion, they would have no choice except to speak their truth as clearly as possible.

Unfortunately, the present consortium of incumbents, hopefuls, polling companies and corporate sponsors ... are unlikely to be moved by any such argument.  Accordingly, the citizens of democracies need to exercise their one remaining mandate.  They should refuse to answer pollsters’ questions.  If even twenty five per cent declined to answer, or lied, or recited poetry ... , the jig would be up.  Political re-jigging would become a thing of the past.

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There is one other possibility: replace elections with polls.

In this prospect, no one would know — until the fateful phone call or doorbell — whether he or she would be called upon.  People would begin discussing political issues against the possibility that they might be chosen — and the equally enlivening possibility that the person next to them would get the nod.

Replacing elections with official polls offers other benefits. Chosen at random from the voting list, such polls would include the disaffected, the cynical and the marginalized. The results would be more representative than the present process.

In addition, poll-elections would be less expensive.  As a consequence, referenda on important issues could be conducted on an ad hoc basis.

Democratic nations have a choice:  get rid of pollsters, or make proper use of them and forget about elections.

 

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