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Take This Poll

On May 25, 2007, the Belleville Intelligencer carried a news item called in Mr. Daryl Kramp, MP for Prince Edward-Hastings.  Apparently, Protus (an Ottawa polling firm hired by Mr. Kramp) had phoned the Kramp residence one evening to ask how anyone there thought the local MP had been performing.

Mr. Kramp was there to take the call.

One cannot help wondering whether he responded before he realized what was going on.

Certainly, Mr. Kramp must have been having doubts about his performance – why else hire a polling company to assess his rating?

Did Daryl offer an opinion before he realized what was going on? Was the opinion  favourable?

We will never know.

However, the incident is instructive in other ways. We might take the opportunity to worry about an MP publicly announcing a self-authored débâcle.

Mr. Kramp’s disclosure is reminiscent of the ‘Shelly Martel defence’. A cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s NDP government, Ms. Martel took a lie detector test in 1991 to prove that she had indeed been lying when she said she had been lying.

It is possible that Mr. Kramp was simply exercised because his privacy had been invaded.  The more likely story is that Daryl was concerned that the poll would be perceived as originating from his riding office. (A ‘technical error’ caused his riding office phone number to appear on telephones equipped with call display.)

In other words, a reasonable suspicion is that Mr. Kramp’s appropriation of the Intelligencer's front page was damage control, pure and simple.

This self-serving appropriation of a public resource should not distract us from an important question. The issue is not where the poll originated, but whether it should have occurred in the first place.

Canada is infested with politicians adroit at evading  and begging questions. Polling is not the entire explanation of course  but polls  have been undermining democracies for decades.

We have some sense of this. Canadian law requires that polls must not be publicized during the final days of elections.

In 1991, sixteen years before MP Kramp attempted to put an innocent spin on his polling company’s faux pas,  The National  hosted a discussion with representatives from the Gallop Company and Decima Research.

Gallop’s spokesperson argued that polls provide people with opportunities to ‘express themselves’, opportunities otherwise unavailable  spite of the elections they hope to anticipate!

The Man from Decima attempted a subtler defence. If polls influence voters, they would occasionally trigger  contradictory outcomes. If this happened pollsters would not then enjoy their reputation for reliability. Therefore political polling is benign.

Both responses  miss the point.  Influences may very well `balance out'. Citizens fearful of ‘losing their vote’ may migrate to projected winners.  Angry or cynical voters may repudiate front-runners.  Many will not bother voting  because results can be predicted with uncanny accuracy.

However parsed, polls diminish the likelihood that some citizens will vote; and that those that do vote  are expressing their own values and understandings.

This is the only interesting reason democracy is better than fascism or totalitarianism.

Citizens should rethink their tolerance of pollsters for another reason.  The practice of taking the electorate’s temperature every couple of hours only occurs in democracies. 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!)

The reality is that political polls are efforts to get information allowing incumbents and and aspiring politicians to massage, titillate or provoke voters whenever results are not to their liking.

Along with attempting to orchestrate the ‘sovereign will’ of voters,  polls trivialize discussions. To provide for the possibility of unfavourable poll results, platforms must be advanced ambiguously. Only vague positions can be massaged into different postures as results come in. This is why candidates cluster around ‘flavour of the day’ enthusiasms, waving nostrums hearkening back to principled beginnings.

There is an even more insidious harm. Pollsters claim that their predictions are accurate within 5%, 19 times out of 20. Such guarantees are footnoted in newspapers, articles and scholarly disquisitions. Therefore, long before Election Day, the die is cast.

There is no point in becoming informed or voting.

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Let's consider an obvious solution.  If democratic nations prohibited polling, political parties would have no choice except articulating and arguing for  substantive agendas.

However, since incumbents, political hopefuls, polling companies and corporate sponsors...  are unlikely to voluntarily give up a practice that has been serving them very well,   democratic hopefuls  should consider another possibility.

We should refuse to answer  pollsters’ questions.  If even 25%  of us declined, the whole wretched business would collapse.

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There is another possibility. Democracies could replace elections with polls. In this story none of us would know until  the phone rang or the door bell sounded  whether we would be called upon .  People would begin discussing political issues against the possibility that they might be chosen — and the equally enlivening prospect that some one else would get the nod.

Chosen at random from the voting list, poll-based elections would include disaffected, cynical and marginalized populations.   The results would be far more representative than elections engaging 50% to 60% of the electorate. Moreover, sSince poll-elections would also be far less expensive, referenda on issues such as abortion, the death penalty, Iraq, Afghanistan … could be conducted as required.

Democracies have a choice: Get rid of pollsters, or make proper use of them and abandon elections.

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